Q&A: UCT Graduate School of Business

Sean Gossel, research director of the UCT Graduate School of Business, on how educational institutions need to respond to evolving social and financial environments

Q&A: UCT Graduate School of Business

Q: How progressive is business education in SA currently?
A: These days, business is actively seeking out managers and entrepreneurs who are emotionally intelligent and self-aware, whereas in previous decades, proficiency in business administration was the key requirement. The emphasis has therefore shifted towards skills such as innovative and critical thinking, communication and agility, which in turn means business schools have to focus on developing students’ self-knowledge and self-mastery to ensure resilience and success.

The UCT Graduate School of Business (GSB) has been ahead of the curve in these aspects, such as our Executive MBA famously being one of the first worldwide to introduce mindfulness practice – a form of stress reduction that uses techniques such as meditation and body awareness. Delegates on this high-level programme will tell you that while some may have resisted it initially, they are all immeasurably grateful for the impact it has had on their ability to self-regulate in high-stress environments.

Q: How have societal and business changes impacted on curricula?
A: The American military acronym VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) perfectly describes the current business landscape globally. The onset of COVID-19 has, of course, exploded onto the scene in recent months and ramped up challenges. One could argue that institutions operating in emerging-market economies have been dealing with such factors long before the term became an issue on the global stage.

In SA, we have had to deal with VUCA factors on a magnitude and scale far beyond what business schools in developed countries have had to grapple with. Cape Town, for example, became the first city in the world to almost run out of water. This unlocked a flowering of innovation and resilience strategies from government, businesses and citizens. VUCA factors are part of our lived reality, and that gives us an edge in infusing teaching with experiential and practical learning to equip graduates to find solutions for business and societal challenges. Nevertheless, the scale of the challenges brought on by COVID-19 is creating unprecedented shifts in the way we work, live and study. These are still unfolding but, if history is a guide, the creative destruction of the pandemic has the potential to reshape the world for the better once the crisis has passed.

Q: How are students prepared for tough operating environments where ethics are challenged?
A: In a globalised world, business education has to expose students to diverse perspectives and cultures in order to enrich their learning experience and prepare them to operate successfully in complex environments.

The UCT GSB’s expertise in teaching students how to produce excellence has made our programmes a sought-after qualification. It is not just African students who benefit but also international students who recognise that an evolved MBA can give them the edge, regardless of where they work in the world. Values-based leadership is a huge proponent of this, to which we have responded with the establishment, in 2011, of the Allan Gray Centre for Values-Based Leadership. The centre seeks to challenge organisations and individuals to find their purpose and build resilience and responsible practices. It sets out to ask difficult questions about the assumptions supporting our current, mostly mechanistic, business-management models. Specifically, it explores whether profit and shareholder value should continue to be the exclusive drivers of business, or if values, purpose and meaning might be a more effective driver for the 21st century.

Q: How is technology impacting on the way students acquire knowledge?
A: The shift to online and blended learning options is a significant trend. The GSB has been working to bring blended learning and online-only offerings into our portfolio with a view to creating additional value, and this process has been accelerated as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the closure of all educational institutions in SA and around the world. While this is going to be a challenge, at the UCT GSB we have been working on technological innovations since before the pandemic. We recently installed state-of-the-art technology in our lecture theatres, giving us the capability to allow students from around the world to connect to the classroom as if they were physically present.
Cameras that work on voice prompts enable remote students to locate a speaker asking a question, which is streamed back in real-time to the virtual classroom.

As a post-experience business school (where all of our students have at least three years’ work experience), we value the knowledge that students bring to the classroom and have relied on face-to-face-learning for this until now. Feedback from delegates has shown that, for many, being together with fellow learners for a block of time is a real luxury.
The intensive period of introspection facilitated by highly stimulating contact with some of the brightest minds across industries gives participants the opportunity to deeply explore concepts and to challenge these ideas with facilitators and fellow senior executives. And in a focused environment, challenges are less easily escaped.

In short, there’s no substitute for putting a group of smart, strong-willed people together in a room, where they can be closely supported as they thrash out solutions to their most pressing challenges. Finding ways to replicate this in an online environment will be a key challenge, but schools that find innovative ways to do it well, I believe, will become market leaders in the future.

Q: Is the MBA still relevant, and is it evolving with specialisation needs?
A: In a world that changes as rapidly as ours does, no one can afford to rest on their laurels. We all need to be constantly investing in our education and skills to stay relevant and fresh. MBA students enter the field of study for one of three reasons: they are seeking career advancement and global opportunities; they would like greater respect in the workplace and are looking for a value-adding and high-end qualification to bolster their credibility; or they are looking to make a positive impact through innovation on the world around them.

Based on our own statistics and those provided by the global Graduate Management Admissions Council, the MBA continues to be a value-adding and sought-after degree with employers. At the UCT GSB, 73% of our MBA class is employed within 90 days of graduation, and a number of our students go on to launch innovative enterprises that make an impact in the world around them. Nevertheless, in recent years there has been a drop-off in interest in the full-time MBA programme globally. Here in SA, we have noticed a growing trend, and need, towards more specialisation offerings. In response, the UCT GSB has, for example, launched specific elective specialisation streams in innovation and entrepreneurship; leadership and change; management consulting; marketing management, operations and supply-chain management; and finance.

Q: How are educational organisations adapting to changing societal needs, such as ESG issues?
A: There is more that can and must be done. As business schools we hold a lot of power to influence the direction of business through shifting the discourse away from one of pure competition and profit motive towards inclusive business and shared values. We have a responsibility to get business to appreciate that there are links between management decisions and planetary and societal ramifications. A large number of students want programmes that focus on sustainable business practices, enterprise development, socially responsible investment, and impact investing. This attention to positive social impact has become a significant drawcard for students who recognise that these skills are becoming increasingly important attributes for the modern leader and entrepreneur. The UCT GSB was one of the first business schools globally to make social innovation a mandatory part of the MBA curriculum and now boasts the largest academic body of work on impact investing in Africa.

Additionally, our specialised Masters – the MCom in Development Finance and MPhil specialising in inclusive innovation – both focus on developing African solutions to African challenges.

Q: How do grad schools grow students into being entrepreneurs and future leaders?
A: Business schools traditionally have a more ‘real world’ than ‘ivory tower’ approach, in the sense that their programmes combine academia and theory with practical, hands-on learning in the business world, and this is accelerating. This approach is becoming more important as the next generation of business leaders faces more complex challenges than previous generations. The rise of AI and other technological innovations are disrupting traditional ways of working – faster than any other period in history. Students need to be prepared for this disruption and at the same time be in touch with the reality of daily life in Africa and work towards solving societal problems. This means that in addition to having excellent administrative and business skills – traditional business acumen skills – they also need to hone their self-awareness and resilience. They need to be willing to try new things and push innovative ideas while being role models in terms of transparency and corporate citizenship.

The UCT GSB aims to create leaders who are able to think big, who are entrepreneurial in mind and action, and who are ethical. Our graduates really understand, from the inside out, that they have the responsibility to build a better world and improve the lives of ordinary people and the communities where they operate.

By Kerry Dimmer