You are a Belgian academic with a background in mathematics and modelling. What is your interest in business education and in Africa? What brings you so far out of your way?
Quite simply, I believe in the power of business and business thinking to bring about transformation and to empower people, so the opportunity to head up Africa’s leading business school was too good to pass up. On top of that, South Africa is an irresistible destination; a country that has survived great difficulties and gone on to become a leading force on the continent. I thought, and still do think, that this continent is the new great innovation frontier. South Africa is at the forefront of that and I want to be part of it.
The other reason for my interest is that this is the emerging market decade, so where better to be than in an emerging market? At the GSB, we define emerging as regions (or organisations) that experience conditions of high uncertainty, high complexity, and often, excessive inequality. This means that the paradigm we are developing is relevant not only for so-called emerging countries or regions, but equally for companies operating in or encountering these conditions. Currently, such companies can be found anywhere in the world. The school is dedicated to equipping leaders and managers operating in such contexts with the relevant skills and know-how to be effective. So we are literally working at the cutting edge here and what we are doing has global relevance – that is exciting. Why would I want to be anywhere else?
During your time at the helm, the UCT GSB has become, indisputably, the top school in Africa. It regularly achieves top global rankings and has been voted the top business school on the continent by the QS Business School Survey and Eduniversal. It has also, of course, achieved triple ranking status – one of only three schools in Africa with this accolade. Has it been an explicit part of your strategy to go after rankings and accreditations?
While rankings and accreditation are certainly not the be-all-andend-all of benchmarking a business schools’ performance, to do so well in them is undoubtedly good for the school. The Financial Times ranking of MBAs, for example, is widely regarded as the authoritative measurement of business school quality and being triple-crowned is an achievement worthy of celebration as very few business schools have achieved it.
There is no doubt that our students – especially the international students use the rankings and accreditations as a way to help them make decisions about which school to attend. And we know that our excellent showing in international rankings helps to convince some African students, who would otherwise have gone to the US or the UK to study, to come south to Cape Town instead – we are very proud of that fact.
But they are more than just marketing collateral – they are also an important investment in the quality of a business school. They can play a role in quality control by isolating areas for a business school that could be improved upon. The official purpose of accreditations is to be a tool to improve the quality of education and the research we deliver.
Achieving accreditation is a process of rigorous internal review, evaluation and adjustment, and can take several years to complete. During these years, the school develops and implements a plan to meet the accreditation standards, which requires a high-quality teaching environment, a commitment to continuous improvement and curricula response to the needs of businesses. All accredited schools must also go through a peer review process every five years in order to maintain their accreditation.
But while they are an important benchmark, they should not detract from its focus on developing African-appropriate business schools. We don’t want to recreate Harvard in Africa. We need something that goes beyond that to address the specific challenges that Africa has. If we use the accreditations as a quality improvement exercise, but keep our focus on our own context, I believe we are on the right path.
So, what are the specific challenges facing Africa that business schools must adapt to?
We have learned from the accreditation process and feedback from the accreditation bodies that there are still a lot of misunderstandings about Africa and the role of African business schools – it is clear the world does not see Africa’s promise and African business schools need to play a role in turning this around.
We need to be honest about our challenges: Africa has an acute skills shortage – on top of that, it has a chronic problem with wealth inequality. But at the same time, the continent is hungry for investment and primed for development. African economies have grown annually by 5% over the last few years and the World Bank predicts that average growth will reach 7% by 2016.
One of our central preoccupations is how to get more people the skills they need to take advantage of this momentum. And also, how do we ensure that business becomes more inclusive for more Africans to benefit from economic growth and development?
Business as usual is not going to be an option for Africa. In common with other emerging markets, it needs something different if it is to meet its development challenges. A broader focus on values and ethics, on sustainability and inclusivity means that companies and businesspeople need to look at the value their companies are bringing to communities and people. They need to ask themselves the question: if we ceased to exist tomorrow, what would the world lack?
So, we seek to foster an attitude in our students oriented towards taking action and responsibility, and developing projects with a clear focus on business model innovation. Lecturers need to showcase to students how business, if entrepreneurial and innovative, can contribute towards a thriving economy. This has necessitated a shift in the way we are teaching and also in what we are teaching.
Speaking of teaching, during your time at the GSB, we have seen the launch of several new programmes including the Master’s in Development Finance and most recently, the Postgraduate Diploma in Management Practice. Does this mean that business schools are moving away from the MBA?
Business is changing, yes. And if it is changing, business schools should change as well. There is no doubt that the MBA remains relevant in the workplace. Employers generally look favourably upon the MBA qualification because they expect that those who have studied one will have the knowledge and skills to benefit an organisation. But now, beyond the question of whether one should get an MBA is the matter of what type of MBA is available.
One of the trends we have noticed – and this has been validated by research – is that MBAs need to deliver a different skillset to today’s graduates. While earning power remains an important concern, one in five MBA graduates in an Association of MBAs survey stated that sustainable or responsible management insights are the most important thing they want from their MBA – for instance.
Beyond that, there is also a growing need – especially in Africa for more widely accessible business skills training that addresses immediate needs and offers condensed knowledge packages in interactive formats, making them optimal for learning. This is the thinking behind the Postgraduate Diploma in Management Practice, launched in 2014, which is aimed at junior and middle managers and seeks to give students basic management knowledge, along with the expertise that comes with the deeper business and psychological insights associated with an MBA.
We cannot keep at one kind of learning when it is clear that more people want and need another kind of education and learning approach. More people want this as it is a way in which skills can be applied very quickly and it is an extremely powerful and effective tool.
In addition to transforming to meet the needs of the market, you also, of course, have to transform internally. Transformation is arguably one of the most vital aspects that South Africa still needs to get right. How has the GSB been getting transformation right?
I have consistently championed transformation at the GSB. The school views transformation as a multifaceted and integrated process, which involves continuous institutional renewal. UCT as a whole has made massive leaps in transformation, including the development of an HIV awareness centre, a sexual harassment office and a disability unit.
Key steps at the GSB in this regard have been the establishment of our own human resources department shortly after I arrived and the introduction of an extensive coaching programme, whereby all staff are entitled to free coaching for their personal development. Another key step has been the reinvigoration of the GSB’s Transformation Forum, which has set new transformation goals. The forum has embarked on an exercise to educate the school about what transformation entails and how wide a sphere it addresses. It is represented on the University’s Transformation and Employment Equity forums, together with representatives from the other faculties and departments.
You have been in Cape Town and at the GSB for five years. What have been the highlights of your tenure so far?
The satisfaction of seeing things moving forward. Two key projects have been the establishment of the Allan Gray Centre for Values-Based Leadership and the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Both of these were founded with funding from lead donors who share our vision for the school and the future of the continent, and they are going from strength to strength. It has been exhilarating to help establish these nodes of academic energy and influence and a privilege to work with the very competent people who are running them. Then, of course, the achievement of our triple-crown accreditation in 2013 was a huge milestone and one that everyone at the school worked extremely hard for. As I mentioned earlier, it is no picnic going after these accreditations and they can only be achieved by virtue of a team effort.
All of this comes together nicely under our market positioning of Full Colour Thinking, which we adopted shortly after I got here. I really like this statement, not only because of its nod towards transformation (from black and white to full colour), but because it captures the essence of what I want to achieve at the GSB: through our research and teaching, we want to challenge taken-for-granted assumptions and practices, and encourage students to do the same. Recognising that there are multiple realities and truths, the GSB teaches students to engage with different ways of understanding what is real and true, leading to the discovery of new tools for living in the midst of complexity. As ancient spiritual wisdom converges with the latest scientific understanding of the world and our place in it, we are finding new answers to the ageold questions of ‘who am I?’ and ‘what am I capable of becoming?’ This creates more entrepreneurial, innovative, creative, resilient and relevant students and organisations. And this is what we are all about.
What have been the challenges?
In common with other African business schools, we struggle with issues of funding, resource constraints and competition from international schools. But over and above these, recruiting top academics has been one of my key challenges. We need the best talent we can get, and we have to do what we can to attract good people. But they also have to be people who have an understanding of the African context, a sympathy for the specific cultures in Africa and a real interest in doing relevant research. I am not sure that we need yet another European or US academic, perfectly fitting the academic culture of the northern hemisphere, but of little added value in Africa. ‘Transfers’ of that kind have not always proven to be successful. Soccer teams (the better ones) tend to focus a lot on youth training, growing their own timber; we should certainly not neglect that. I have been fortunate in managing to attract some quality academics who have joined us in the past five years, bringing a fantastic spectrum of skills and expertise. We now have the largest full-time faculty of any business school in Africa and this puts us in a formidable position.
And what lies ahead?
We have to keep up the momentum and capitalise on the great strides we have already taken. Our focus on values-based leadership and social innovation and entrepreneurship will remain at the core of what we do as we seek to live up to our mission to be a leading emerging market business school that is relevant, excellent and grounded in values. We will also seek to increase our influence on the rest of Africa, building African business schools through our association with the Association of African Business Schools (AABS) and will continue with our strategy to recruit more international students, especially from the rest of Africa. If we claim to be an African business school then we think it is crucial that our classrooms reflect the diversity of Africa.
Our focus on research will remain. Research has been on a steady upward trajectory at the GSB and this must continue. The GSB is forging a new path for business schools, one that is informed by the ebb and flow of the dynamics that define emerging markets. I believe that we have something unique to offer the world. Unlike schools with a more traditional approach to teaching, our students are exposed to the latest in business model innovation through integrative thinking; systems thinking and design thinking; institutional innovation; cross-boundary collaboration; cocreating through the value chain; developmental ventures; and consumer insights through big data analysis.
We will continue to build the MBA and our Executive MBA offering along with the new postgraduate diploma within this framework, and to promote business model and pedagogical innovation through the work of the Solution Space. Rigorous research and academic vigour, and an extremely strong faculty enable students to become confident in their own abilities to approach emerging market issues critically, creatively and proactively, while gaining international exposure.
Also on the horizon is the building of a brand new conference centre on the campus, which will allow us to extend our offering and reach more people, as well as to bring in more partners and collaborators.
Really, I believe that things are only going to get better and better here at Africa’s top business school. Watch this space!