Business school refocus 2010

Posted on July 16, 2010

“There is a regrouping and refocusing by companies on what they want from business schools,” says Wits Business School corporate learning head Mark Peters. “They are demanding a stronger teaching focus on their own organisational capability, at the expense of individual development.”

With recession still fresh in everyone’s minds, “financial directors are flexing their muscles. They are demanding that executive education provides a direct cost benefit to the organisation. They want proof of return on investment.”

Helena van Zyl, director of the University of Free State school of management and interim director of the SA Business Schools Association, observes: “For a long time, there was a proliferation of companies sending people on courses for the sake of it. Then they realised all those framed pieces of paper on the walls meant very little and cost a lot of money.”

There has been a shift away from “soft” subjects like emotional intelligence, networking and even human resources. Instead, the new emphasis is on “hard” skills, like management and finance, that more quickly affect the bottom line.

The same rationale is persuading companies to spend less on open-enrolment programmes, where classrooms are shared with whoever can pay the fees, in favour of customised, in-house courses tailored specifically to corporate needs.

Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) executive education head Leon Mouton says total customised education income at the school in the first four months of this year exceeded the total for 2009.

It’s happening across the board. Potchefstroom Business School head Tommy du Plessis says North West Province agricultural co-ops have been queuing up for customised executive education. “We’ve had six different year-long courses going at once.”

Parastatals are in the mix. This year Armscor invited tenders to provide its managers with customised education. Government, at both national and local level, is desperate for management and leadership skills.

Demand is also coming from outside SA. Some aid donors have asked schools to train those who manage their funds. “They are tired of their money being frittered away by people who don’t know finances,” says Peters.

NMMU director Piet Naude says his school has been contracted to train southern Sudan’s government-in-waiting. The region, based around the city of Juba, is due to hold a referendum next year on seceding from Sudan. Naude says: “We have developed a product in conjunction with southern Sudan’s shadow leadership. We offer things like strategy, politics and conflict resolution. We’ve been asked to make the programme available to other developing countries.”

International training all over the world is nothing new to established SA schools. Some concentrate on particular areas. David Abdulai, head of the Graduate School of Business Leadership at the University of SA (Unisa), says of his institution : “We are not an SA business school but an African business school located in SA.”

The challenge is to remain at the cutting edge. Walter Baets, director of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business, says business schools must teach more than business and management fundamentals.

“Leaders globally are often criticised as being inadequate and we need only look at the recession to see that this argument has merit. The truth is that just teaching the fundamentals is not enough,” he says. Students and managers must “shake up their world view and see themselves and others in a new light”.

Nick Binedell, director of Pretoria University’s Gordon Institute of Business Science (Gibs), says the school-client relationship can develop to the point that the school is involved directly in setting corporate direction and goals. “We sometimes act as a consultancy. Companies see us as their strategic partners.”

Schools that have yet to gain a firm foothold on the customised education bandwagon are anxious to do so.

Theresa Moyo, acting head of Limpopo University’s Turfloop graduate school of leadership, says it is a key part of the school’s strategic plan to 2013.

Colin Rowley, director of Henley Management College’s executive development, admits it can be a frustrating business. Though the school has secured corporate clients since branching out three years ago from being an exclusively MBA provider, he admits that “our executive education hasn’t grown as vigorously as we had hoped”.

It didn’t help that the school entered the market just as recession was about to hit. Or that it’s had other pressing concerns. Since its UK parent’s merger with Reading University outside London, Henley in SA has been trying to change its name to Henley Business School. Such is SA red tape that the school has had to re-register with authorities and seek reaccreditation for its MBA degree.

However, with a new dean — academic and former aerospace executive Jonathan Foster-Pedley — due next year, as well as a new name and new headquarters in Woodmead, Johannesburg, school GM Fran Connaway hopes for more robust growth from 2011.

Henley is only the latest of several schools with new leadership. Wits, having appointed a director in January, is about to start the search for a replacement (see story below). Baets took over at Cape Town last year, Owen Skae succeeded founding director Gavin Staude at Rhodes University’s business school in January (see page 37), and UK academic John Powell replaced the long-serving Eon Smit at Stellenbosch in June.

Powell has the advantage, while settling in, of not having to worry about executive education. That’s for Frik Landman, CEO of Executive Development, a company created to manage the lucrative business. “Customised education is going up like crazy this year,” he says. “Companies have realised they must build management and skills capacity.”

One subject where Landman sees particular demand growth is leadership. “I hope it’s not a novelty.” So does Abdulai: “That’s what management is: leadership. It requires responsibility, accountability and the ability to inspire.”

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