A FEW weeks back I read an interesting opinion piece by Jonathan Foster-Pedley, the dean of Henley Business School in South Africa, in which he bemoaned the "voiceless" businesss schools in South Africa.
He said there was "a deafening silence from the halls of business academe on issues like job creation, the role of trade unions, corruption, the structure of state-owned enterprises, the strength of the rand, import- and export-parity pricing, labour-broking, and even the very role of business in a developmental state".
I tend to agree with him. In my experience of business schools in South Africa, you get the sense that while they have smart, reasonable and experienced people it also often feels as if they are operating in a cocoon.
A simple example: two years ago I was at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (Gibs), where various MBA students were pitching for venture capital funding at one of their forum events.
One of the ideas which came up was a wedding site women anywhere in the world could outsource all the planning for items like candles, flowers and even wedding dresses to.
Call me a non-believer, but anybody who has been through the ceremony knows that for a girl probably 98% of the excitement is in the planning and shopping phase of it and the actual wedding day is just a box to be ticked off if it goes smoothly.
I couldn't fathom one reason why a bride in the US would use this service, and yet all these bright guys with MBAs were trying to work out whether people would buy more wedding dresses or flowers through the site.
Simplistic, but this example perhaps leads into the next debate. Should a business school take a stance on a particular subject, eg prohibitive labour law, or is its responsibility to put together functions or forums where people can simply debate critical issues?
At lunch on Tuesday I put this question to Nick Binedell, the head of school at Gibs. He leant toward the latter, although he did note it would be good to see more high-level government officials engaging with the business school community as a way of communicating with various stakeholders.
I am not sure this is enough, though, considering that there is a perceived distrust – at least in public - between government and business when it comes to communicating agendas. A business school can bridge this gap to some extent, because it's not touting individual interests but can rather be positioned in the “greater good” category.ANCYL not just about Julius
A perfect example is the ANC Youth League (ANCYL). Its spokesperson Floyd Shivambu will probably disagree with me a little, but the league is not very good at communicating with people. In fact, the media sits there waiting for Julius or Floyd to say something because they know it will make a good headline the next day.
These kind of hostile relationships between the media and government or the ANC have characterised the last decade in politics. It has pigeonholed an organisation like the ANCYL as a body consisting of a bunch of crackpot, self-serving revolutionaries.
Ironically, at least one highly educated ANCYL representative, who spoke very well, was pro business and made a lot of sense, said their piece at Gibs in the last few months - but this wasn't given much air play in the media.
An interesting comment made by Binedell was that that when he polls business people in other countries, they place far less store in what the media reports than their South African counterparts, who claim that their views are shaped almost exclusively by what they read, see or hear.
This is a perfect area in which the business schools could bridge the communication gap.
We always focus on how important education is in South Africa, and this must include our highly-regarded business schools.
Maybe it is time for them to step up to the plate and move more into the public eye, to contribute to debates which are likely to be emotionally charged as they try to strike a balance between various interests.