Associate professor Owen Skae, director of Rhodes Business School, on the role of sustainability in creating impactful leaders


Q: How has the business education environment changed over the past five years?
In the recent past, educators have been guilty of using 19th century methods focused on 20th century issues, when our reality is in the 21st century. The pandemic has flipped this. Now we are using 21st century methods to unlearn the narrow and siloed thinking of the 20th century to assist in returning our planet to at least the healthy, biodiverse state it was in the 19th century and before. There is an urgent need, therefore, for business educators to generate a change in mindset that results in creating sustainable value; hence a focus on the purpose of a business, which should not simply be about how much money it makes, but how it makes its money.

Q: How does this influence future business leaders?
Integrated thinking is essential. The overriding focus is to educate business leaders and managers to be visionary and innovative in building business models that address the Sustainable Development Goals. It is not either/or; nor is this mutually exclusive. The linear, take-make-waste production model has to be replaced by the circular economy of value creation for all, recognising that shareholder primacy will not put us on the path of sustainable consumption and wealth creation for all the planet’s citizens. Fifteen years ago, Rhodes Business School had the foresight to focus on leadership for sustainability, hence our vision of transforming business for a sustainable world and our mission to educate and influence responsible business practices, responsibly.

Q: Are there more add-ons to diploma and degree programmes as a result?
It is tempting to suggest that there must or should be a multitude of add-ons to ensure relevance, but a balance must prevail. If there are too many add-ons, learning can become an overwhelming process. The possibility of ending up with too many choices can result in a paralysing process that in itself has an undesirable consequence.

Certainly, there are core issues that we must continue to focus on, such as knowing your customers and markets, developing a value proposition, and building an organisation that empowers its people. Whether we call that ‘marketing’, ‘strategic marketing’, or ‘sustainable marketing’, for example, does not change the essence… If you don’t have customers, you don’t have a business. These are universal business principles that don’t change – it is the ‘how’ that is changing. We have to ensure that add-ons contribute to integrated thinking, which is our preference.

Further, part of business education is to create capability and capacity for self-learning, because that is a lifelong skill. We simply can’t teach everything that needs to be taught – but what we can do is develop the foundation and method that supports that desire for self-learning.

Q: What degrees/diplomas are proving most popular today with business leaders and future business graduates?
There is a proliferation of specialist qualifications springing up – the most prominent and popular being data science and analytics, business analysis, project management and supply chain – because they offer immediate employability opportunities. We’re also seeing a joint-discipline focus, such as environmental science and economics.

Into the future, I also see an increasing emphasis on integrating science and commerce qualifications, especially as the need to commercialise scientific breakthroughs provides more opportunities for self-employment, and businesses can better understand the science that mitigates against the risks of climate change, the creation of sustainable products and the like – particularly those that solve deep societal and environmental challenges.

Lastly, there has been an upsurge in ethics and leadership courses as business leaders and managers grapple with ethical dilemmas, corrupt business practices and leading in multi-contextual circumstances, whether that be cultural, inter-generational or virtual reality, to name a few.

Q: How crucial is it for CEOs to be educated/certified in environmental issues?
I don’t think CEOs have to be specifically certified in environmental issues. However, they are the glue in the C-suite and therefore need to be the drivers of the integrated thinking that must permeate the leadership and management of the organisation.

CEOs grapple constantly with balancing short- and long-term imperatives, managing at times what appear to be irreconcilable stakeholder needs, interests and expectations, while ensuring they act in the best long-term interest and health of the company that they have stewardship of. Hence, if they are not educated in how these opportunities and risks have to be navigated while having the ability to get things done, the organisation will not achieve the kind of sustainable enterprise value creation that is needed.

Q: What demands are placed on business schools in a digitally enabled society?
This is moving at such a pace, it’s difficult to keep up. Firstly, there is enablement from a technology and hardware perspective. While we’ve experienced a tremendous cost reduction in this, substantial investment is still required. Secondly, there is an investment needed in training educators to get the best out of the technology. The pandemic forced us to learn on the job, but now we have to adopt a more systemic approach to find the best way to harness what is available with the resources that we have. Thirdly, will be the advent of the hybrid model. Not everybody is convinced that a digitally enabled society is the most effective mode of delivery, especially given that human interaction in the physical environment is missed. So, the demand for the hybrid model and how that will look is yet to be established.

Lastly, it’s being sensitive to the needs of the recipient. What is wanted and what is needed can manifest in different outcomes. A quick five-minute video presentation might be what is wanted, but the actual need is the deep, critical engagement that the face-to-face immersive teaching and learning experience brings. We will have to manage the clash of wants and needs smartly.

Q: How will Industry 4.0 impact the role of the business school?
I don’t think we fully understand yet what impact this will have, other than we know that it will be profound. First, we must accept that nothing is impossible and that the days of resisting change are gone. To say ‘this is the way I have always taught and that isn’t going to change’ is a pipe dream. So expect the unexpected, embrace change and be receptive to it. Secondly, we don’t have all the necessary skillsets in SA to offer what is required to cope in this world, so we will see increasing international partnerships and, hence, openness to collaboration is essential. This raises questions around how we manage our autonomy, which will also result in some resistance to change. Lastly, we will have to bring real experiences to the classroom. Understanding the impact can only be if it is seen tangibly; otherwise it will always be something out there, that somebody else is doing and hence doesn’t concern us.

Q: Are business schools engaging with the government and corporates to ensure business skills are relevant and aligned to policies and objectives?
More so than ever. Gone are the days of the Ivory Tower. While I maintain there is a space for the pure academic – namely those who pursue knowledge for the sake of it, because that is how we advance knowledge – simultaneously we need ‘pracademics’ who straddle the world of work and academia. This is why executive education is so important; it provides that opportunity for dialogue and insight into why things are, what needs to change and how to do it.

Q: Does a business degree still hold value, given the influence of the internet of things?
There is no doubt that it does. IoT can bring knowledge and insight in unprecedented ways and is making a huge impact, but will it lead to the demise of the business degree? No. I see them as complementary. A business degree provides an opportunity for the kind of rigorous assessment that cannot be replaced by AI or machines. Being challenged by excellent teachers is still the most profound learning experience, and a structured degree pathway with appropriate scaffolding ensures the building blocks are there. Early childhood education is initially about learning to read so you can read to learn. Without learning to read, the education journey never gets off first base. The same is true with the business degree. It provides that basis for learning in an accessible, productive way.

Q: Is SA overburdened by too many qualified business professionals, and how does a job candidate stand out?
We actually have a chronic shortage, and the biggest problem is the lack of internship and mentoring opportunities. Our unemployment rate is at crisis level. Tertiary education graduates have much greater opportunities than matriculants to be employed, but still, there are not enough jobs to go around. We need to address this. Job experience will allow some standing out; it isn’t just about getting high marks anymore.

By Kerry Dimmer