Business schools in the era of 4IR

What kind of leadership values and skills should African business schools be imparting to their students as we encounter the fourth industrial revolution (4IR)? This was one of the key questions considered by African business school deans who met for the Association of African Business Schools (AABS) annual conference from 6-9 June in Stellenbosch, South Africa.

The 4IR, an era in which industrial development marked by a fusion of technologies such as artificial intelligence, genome editing, robotics and 3-D printing converging to change the way humans create, exchange and distribute value, has currently become a focus across universities in Africa, including their business schools.

Dr Ulingeta Mbamba, dean of Dar es Salaam University Business School in Tanzania, said the “fast-changing world in which business schools were operating has challenged most of what we believed to be correct”.

“These changes mean we need to look for innovative, entrepreneurial and productive leaders,” he said.

Stressing the importance of staying abreast of developments, Mbamba said: “If the manager is unaware, they are not prepared for the future, yet they will still need to teach, and be relevant.”

Job loss fears

Professor Nicola Kleyn, dean of the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, said providing leadership for employees worried about keeping their jobs – a fear exacerbated by high unemployment on the continent – meant employees needed reassurances that they could adjust to change.

Highlighting some of the prevailing “confusion” around terminology, Kleyn said business schools need to ensure they are not distracted by discussions about robotics but understand exactly what it means to embrace 4IR when “we live in a continent where 1IR (mechanisation) is in place”, but the benefits of the 2IR (technologies based on electric power) and 3IR (digital technologies) feature less consistently.

This inconsistency across the continent was reinforced when Dr Ali Elquammah, AABS chairperson and director of HEM Business School in Morocco, noted that some of the deans in his membership network did not have email domains for their schools. “We have some schools with professors without internet connections. We need to start with the basics, we need electricity. Get people connected and grow with what we have,” he said.

Human skills

Elquammah said leaders needed to be identified and trained at every level of society, not just upper management tiers. He said in the 4IR, business schools can create value by focusing on the kind of human skills that cannot be programmed into a computer. These include communication and collaboration skills, intellectual and spiritual intelligence.

Dr Djiby Anne, director of Dakar Business Schools group, said the role of business schools was to be a “test bed for innovation and creativity”, while Kleyn said she was not convinced that business leaders were doing enough collectively to guide business schools to ask the best questions and ensure they are not caught up in the panic and hype surrounding 4IR.

Stressing the importance of context, Professor Lyal White, head of the Johannesburg Business School in South Africa, said the African continent would see a “convergence of demographics and technology” unlike any other place.

“The reality of what is happening on the African continent is important if we are to come up with requisite skills for addressing challenges faced by business schools … We might be entering the global debate on 4IR but let’s not forget that Africa is grappling with enormous challenges,” he said.

“The business schools have to nurture empathy, culture and connectedness … Our role is to develop a global mindset so that our people have a vision far beyond the borders of our continent,” White said.

Creating hope

Professor Drikus Kriek, vice-dean at Slovenia’s IEDC-Bled School of Management and a representative of the Central and East European Management Development Association, said the role as business schools is to help create hope.

African business schools should not look at their problems in isolation as challenges such as unemployment were similar in other parts of the world, he said.

“We should look for partnerships beyond where we normally look, in other parts of the world, and instead of Africa sitting and waiting for a solution it should develop its own solutions,” Kriek said.