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The Future of Business Education

Many of those who reflect on the future, appeal to the past for guidance on the premise that “the future is contained in the past” Ð frequently doing so successfully in situations where problems are well defined and tractable, where history repeats itself in a discernable pattern or evolves following a well-established trend, alternatively where known lead-lag relationships provide early signals of future developments. The history of management education provides a case in point illustrating how educational content follows business-led practices, technological progress or, by exception, mere fads or silver bullets, as some examples may illustrate.

A century ago business teaching emphasised scientific management and the optimisation of production, following Taylor and Ford’s respective leads in the application of respectively work study and mass production, a little later to teach the concepts of brand management, as popularised by McElroy at Proctor and Gamble. During the sixties, business teaching followed business practice by promoting corporate growth, diversification and management by numbers with a resulting emphasis on analytics and quantification. In latter years developments in information technology led to a teaching emphasis on business re-engineering and still later, knowledge management. In reaction to the corporate excesses and accompanying failures of the past two decades – for which business school education had to shoulder a significant portion of the blame – schools took the lead by accentuating sustainable practises, good governance and ethical behaviour, resulting in a new perspectives on leadership, while simultaneously following business practice in preparing future managers for the challenges of global business.

Today most of these ideas, amongst others, due to their timeless relevance, compete for the attention span of overworked business students, while educators still face the perpetual challenge of providing learning for individuals, organisations and society aligned with their current best view of the demands to be placed on future leaders, trying to provide guidance in terms of purpose, destiny and direction, while developing knowledge, skills and values. Progressive business education institutions are already investing in the intellectual capital and delivery systems required to successfully compete on a playing field increasingly characterised by hyper-competition, technological change and innovation.

Analysis of current and recent trends in curriculum development, with an eye on the most probable educational needs of the workplace, point to, inter alia, knowledge and skill requirements in the broad (and sub-) domains of:

  • critical thinking abilities
  • big data analytics
  • digital disruption and digital media
  • innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship
  • artificial intelligence and machine learning and
  • science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) oriented industries in general

While recent trends in educational delivery systems include:

  • technology mediated learning, blended learning, distance learning, mobile learning and online global learning, all supporting individualised, customised instruction
  • experiential education (internships and field-based projects)
  • project based teamwork
  • incubator and laboratory learning (including virtual reality)
  • the gamification of learning
  • the international integration of classrooms and international team activities and competitions
  • collaborative applied research in organisations and
  • learning through consultation.

The newly emerging educational universe will call for new institutional arrangements, factors and processes of production, as well as recalibrated business models replacing those that have become the industry norms over the past century. It is doubtful whether even the top schools in the world will currently command either the intellectual capital or the technological means to design and offer a significant proportion of the above content by way of the spectrum of new modalities listed.

Strategic choices will have to be made amongst the different knowledge domains and the accompanying delivery systems, keeping in mind the competitive positioning of the institution, the access to resources and the academic maturity and prior knowledge of the students, the clients and the business environment. Extremely scarce intellectual capital will have to be sourced in competition with the industry Ð to a lesser extent than now on a permanent basis. The most successful institutions in this regard will probably be those that can access scarce expertise from other departments, faculties or learning institutions, or from industry agreements on a collaborative basis. Within a university context, departments teaching computer and information science, and faculties of engineering and health science come to mind naturally, although not exclusively. Debatably, the most valuable co-operation, however, will be with world-class industries rooted in technological and information-age development and applications. The educational environment will most probably be characterised by one that is trans-disciplinary and collaborative Ð critical people capabilities of the future, unlocking the managerial potential to be at ease with both societal (humanistic) and scientific demands, in command of practical wisdom (Aristotle’s “phronesis”) and capable of solving deep global problems including those of business. Research will be judged to a far greater extent by real-world impact and will form the binding force of the extended learning platforms, creating in the words of Whitehead “a band of imaginative scholars and practitioners” in acknowledgement of a future reality where incremental and discipline-bound research will produce neither the questions nor the answers to solve future problems of increasing complexity.

The “New Age” of management holds implications for the business models and sustainability of business schools. We are currently experiencing a global drive in different modalities of on-line learning, which may lead to the massification of business education resulting in hyper-competition with prices being driven down to marginal costs. The leading schools should emerge (as in the past) as those commanding the highest quality of intellectual capital and most efficient delivery modalities, creating advanced learning outcomes highly valued by the market place. It would not be surprising to see the currently well-resourced institutions heading up the leaders’ lists again. However, given the scarcity and the corresponding price of future scarce resources, it is possible to imagine that the inequality coefficient between educational institutions will increase, with fewer winners and more losers and with the developing world, in the absence of targeted support, falling further back in this Fourth Industrial Age.

In the new world of disruptive change, Black Swan events, however, are more likely than in the past to speed up, delay or totally invalidate our best held views of the future. It does not relieve us of the duty to try to future-proof our own futures and those of our institutions in the light of existing insights.

Professor Eon Smit is Emeritus Professor and past Director of the University of Stellenbosch Business School. He is also a member of the Boards of USB-ED and TSIBA Education. He is a past Advisory Board member of the University of Hull Business School in the UK and Professor Extraordinaire at Potchefstroom Business School. He has chaired more than forty international business school audit teams for accreditation agencies such as EQUIS, AMBA and the South African CHE?.

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