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Should Universities and Business Schools Focus on the Present or the Future?

j_f-pThis blog was written by Jon Foster-Pedley, Dean and director, Henley Business School Africa.

Jonathan Foster-Pedley recently participated as a panelist in the Parliamentary Debate at the GBSN/EFMD Joint Conference in Africa. Four panelists were to argue for or against the following statement: “the house believes that the business schools should serve as visionaries shaping the future of management, instead of reacting to immediate market demands.” Jonathan argued against.

To read the original article click here.

I often think that when listening to people talk about today and the future they’re really talking about yesterday and today. Especially in universities and academia. Our minds can be so colonized by our institutions and their frames that we cannot easily view a complex international worldly context. The future is embedded in today. It’s not some random aberration – we create it. Often accidentally by the unintended consequences of our action as by the intended consequences.

As much as building skills and knowledge, universities and business schools needs to teach awareness, consciousness and interpretation. To be fully in the present, not lost in producing papers for future careers or distracted from the angst of living by our addictions to a cellphones and apps. They have much vested in their own worlds and infrastructure. The real future of universities will certainly be disruptive. Asking faculties and academics to visualize and understand the ‘real’ future can be like asking turkeys to dream of Christmas. Awkward.

I’m a simple man. A pilot. A pilot plans for his flights carefully and charts a future course with a great thoroughness. But lives fully in the here and now. In today, in fact – in the moment. Face it, you don’t want your pilot to be on autopilot in his mind, do you? But he is fully engaged in calculating future scenarios. Businesses’ current needs are not delinkable from their future needs. Any more than my adult self is delinkable from my child self. The question itself sits in a binary, Manichaean mindset.

We live in today. We need skills for today. The today of today is future-oriented not retrospective. Today does not mean ivory towers and irrelevant, solipsistic research. Vague dreams and castles in the sky, where as elitist seers we moralize and tut-tut, painting some images of perfection and building warm visions while people still live in poverty, while habitats and biomes are destroyed, where it’s projected we will lose 1/3rd of the world’s mammals, other than humans, by 2020.

Focusing on today means focusing on skills that build business that build prosperity today. Health, value, better society. Dynamism, change and relevance.

Too often we sit in irrelevant abstraction. The future project is too often seen as comfortable disassociation from the present, a refuge for high words and an excuse for separation from the uncertainties, imperfections and ambiguities of committed action, where, God forbid, we may be wrong and make errors.

The university of today must embrace error in order to be innovative, must work in continual beta mode, failing fast forwards. The present needs are urgent. The 70% of African population that is below 25, of whom some 40-60% are unemployed, cannot wait for our visions of utopian futures whilst a dystopian present unfolds.

Being truly future-oriented means being focused on today.

So in practical terms, if I have to choose between focusing on either the present or the future I choose to act in a fully conscious, fully aware present as the path to a better future. After all we act our way into a new way of thinking rather than think our way into a new way of acting.

Make reality your friend.