19 August 2005

South Africa: Creating MBAs With a Conscience


Johannesburg — THERE is an increasing emphasis on the need for greater exposure to sustainable development and related concepts such as corporate citizenship and business ethics in business education. There are three good reasons for this. First, the spate of corporate governance scandals epitomised by cases such as Enron has focused attention on whether business education is doing what it can to prevent corporate crime.

Many have argued that MBA programmes tend to perpetuate a business approach based on greed and self-interest. In response, prominent business schools such as Harvard's have enhanced their teaching of corporate citizenship issues, and the key accreditation bodies in North America and Europe have urged their members to do likewise.

Second, there are increasing calls for a response by business to the opportunities and challenges of sustainable development. Initiatives such as the United Nations Global Compact, as well as many companies and business associations such as the World Business Council for Sustainable Development argue that business has a role to play in achieving the millennium development goals, for instance. Business opportunities such as those presented by the Kyoto Protocol will be lost to MBA graduates without exposure to sustainability issues.

Third, the South African context adds imperatives in the form of socio- economic transformation and black economic empowerment. Crucial elements of empowerment, including affirmative procurement, employee training, and community development, relate closely to the international sustainability agenda. Furthermore, the recent reaccreditation process for South African MBA programmes has provided an important opportunity for reconsidering the role of social issues in business education.

But there are concerns that South African business schools are lagging behind in developing a creative response.

This was the consensus at a recent symposium convened by the University of SA (Unisa) Centre for Corporate Citizenship, as well as an associated dinner with leaders from business and business schools. Participants noted that business schools were only one component of the change of step needed in business.

One of the papers presented at the symposium reported on a survey of MBA programmes in SA. It found that only one programme -- of the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business -- included a core module that explicitly integrated the social, economic, and environmental aspects of the sustainability agenda and related this to modern business success. There are other innovative programmes, such as that of the Gordon Institute of Business Science, which includes a core module on HIV/AIDS policy and strategy. A number of other South African MBAs offer courses on corporate governance or business ethics.

Overall, however, MBAs in SA are dominated by conventional notions of business success. Obligatory modules relevant to corporate citizenship are rare. Even scarcer is the rigorous integration of such issues in established core components. The survey supports the findings of the Council on Higher Education that MBAs in SA tend to give a certain prominence to particular South African themes, such as empowerment and corporate governance. Sustainable development, however, is much less broadly recognised as important by co-ordinators.

In contrast, there is a significant group of MBA stakeholders surveyed by the research -- comprising recent MBA graduates and representatives from business, government, and civil society -- that values sustainable development much more highly and consistently than the MBA co-ordinators. This gap in perceptions is evident with regard to other aspects of sustainability education in business schools. For instance, MBA co-ordinators felt that members of business school faculties were well qualified to teach sustainability subjects, while almost all MBA stakeholders disagreed.

The conclusion is that a more committed engagement by business schools' leadership and faculty members is required on the need for integrating sustainability in business education. But sustainability is not just another element of the curriculum. Symposium participants emphasised that education for sustainability needed to go beyond cognitive dimensions. Future business leaders will need the emotional intelligence to move from a narrow group mentality to a broader vision of collective benefit.

This calls for innovative teaching. The average MBA student will need to be confronted with more critical voices. Teachers spoke about "lightbulb moments" when students who had never thought of civil society as relevant to business participated in debates with articulate nongovernmental organisation leaders. Perhaps the most powerful method of developing students' cognitive and emotive abilities is an immersion programme, where they participate in, say, an inner-city renewal project.

The bottom line is that business schools will need to think more carefully about the vision of business they are selling in their MBA programmes. They can stick to the inertia of business as usual, or lead an international business movement in the quest for sustainability.

Hamann is with the Unisa Centre for Corporate Citizenship.

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