5 July 2012

Africa: Management Education for the Masses

If business education is to meet Africa's development challenges it is time to rethink models and increase accessibility.

Across the world the efficacy of the traditional MBA model is being questioned. In Africa, where less than 100 business schools serve a billion-strong population, that is no different. Management education on the continent needs to do less by way of replicating the West, critics say, and more to meet developmental challenges. That means helping to grow the smaller businesses that will play a crucial role in inclusive development; and improving skills not just at the top, but through middle- and entry-levels of management. It means making business education accessible to many.

Too often in Africa the MBA either fails to meet the practical needs of industry, or is accessible only to the employees of big businesses. And while many schools offer certificate courses or dedicated entrepreneurial education departments, these tend to be too expensive for businesses further down the pyramid.

"Some schools, like Lagos Business School, are reaching out to entrepreneurs and SMEs - but at costs of up to $500 per day that's not something most people can pay for," says Rebecca Harrison, head of the African Management Initiative. "There's now a growing realisation that business schools need to reach out to lower markets than schools in the West."

AMI is trying to redesign low-cost management education for SMEs. Its so-called "mobile business clinic" - a moving, miniature business school - will pilot in Ghana later this year.

"The idea is that we go to SMEs, rather than making them come to capital cities," Ms Harrison explains. Using a team of high level industry experts looking to "give something back", the programme would visit individual businesses, to "diagnose" their challenges, teach management basics, and work on a "treatment plan" with participants. Managers will be able to study outside of work, applying their experience to their immediate business problems. The ambition is to find an entrepreneur in each country to license the model and roll out the programme privately.

There are mixed feelings about whether there is a role for existing business schools in providing low-cost, short, basic management courses. This is a difficult model for schools that are paying quality faculty, the argument goes. But for Srikant Datar, Arthur Lowes Dickinson Professor of Accounting at Harvard University and author of Rethinking the MBA: Business Education at a Crossroads, that is not a good enough excuse.

"If we believe these changes are important, we need to think more innovatively and imaginatively about cost-effective ways to make them. Schools can make that viable financially," he argues.

"African business schools should figure out the problems they are trying to address - problems like unemployment, which we know are only going to be addressed when smaller companies hire more. Individuals lower down the pyramid need to have the opportunity towards this education. We need to rethink the basic models for business schools."

If that is happening in the West - with schools like Wharton and Harvard putting out new syllabuses - then it needs to happen in Africa too. There is no reason why schools should not be offering shorter, cheaper, more accessible courses aimed to answer the specific sectoral needs of working professionals, he argues.

"Schools ought to be getting more faculty that are very differently trained from those who have knowledge, but don't have 'doing' skills at all. There are online options. They should rethink the courses, rethink the costs right from the bottom."

There are lessons to be taken from India. Vinay Pasricha, chairman of WLC College India, re-launched his curriculum a decade ago because he realised the business school was not answering industry's needs.

"We realised we were in some way copying what was happening in the UK or the US or other parts of the world in business education - that what we were teaching was not relevant to the requirements of the job market," Mr Pasricha explains.

"We realised that it's not enough to 'know', you have to 'do', and then also 'be', in the sense of learning what it is to be a good manager."

WLCI worked closely with companies across India to "completely reinvent business education". Under the new model, professional students can study practical courses focused on areas such as HR, marketing and finance for a minimum of three months. Participants study half days while working as apprentices in the afternoon; an approach which gives them both practical "doing" experience and provides much needed income to fund their education.

"The beauty of this is that you can reach into areas of the population that previously would not have been given a shot at all," Harvard's Mr Datar explains.

WLCI is now working to set up company academies for groups like Tata Motors, which is developing sales managers to work in dealerships across India. The corporate university approach lets companies define their own curriculum for entry-level managers, while students pay a subsidised fee to enrol, removing the need for costly in-house training schemes.

"This works for everyone. For the company because they get people who are trained in the full process without footing the whole bill. For the student because he is guaranteed a job and because part of the fee is subsidised by the company based on the work he does for them as he trains," Mr Pasricha explains.

"This is the model going forward. The business school model needs to fundamentally change to something more practical which answers the needs of both students and employers in a much better way. And the same thing will be required in Africa. They cannot copy what is happening in the West - what they require is very similar to what we are doing here."

School Profile: Groupe ISM

The Senegal-based ISM is celebrating its 20th anniversary, and is using the landmark to work towards its goal of educating 20,000 business leaders across Francophone West Africa by 2020.

"Our ambition is to build a new stratum of leadership for the continent," says associate director Idrissa Mbengue.

To achieve this goal, Senegal's first and most respected private business school is focusing on developing its eight regional campuses. "Before people came to Dakar to study, but we have started to bring schools to the population," Mr Mbengue says. Students in local campuses benefit from lower costs of living, as well as tuition fees that are half those of Dakar's, making business education accessible to previously disenfranchised potential students.

At the moment each campus offers the same curriculum, taught by the same faculty - although the MBA is still only taught at Dakar. But ISM is working to launch fledgling local offerings next year. "We have categorised Senegal's business environment and found differences emerge," he explains.

"The north is about eco-tourism and agribusiness, while the centre is more industrialised and heavy on agriculture, the south about project management and agribusiness, and the west is about local tourism." In the latter, for instance, where there are almost 100 hotels, "we need to have a specific programme on tourism and hotel management - because the need is here," Mr Mbengue believes.

Regionally-specific courses will most likely be at the executive education level though might also include electives on the school's undergraduate degree, and special Masters offerings.

But with students hailing over 25 countries ISM wants to maintain a simultaneous global focus, perpetuated through partnerships with schools like Rouen, Grenoble, and GIBS. The message is locally relevant but global courses, for a world increasingly without borders.

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