African management courses must be focused on local priorities

Management graduates from Africa are struggling to apply their classroom lessons to the working world. From www.shutterstock.com

Some of Africa’s economies are among the fastest-growing in the world. This boom in countries like Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique and Nigeria means that the continent needs competent managers more than ever before.

The value of good managers is well-documented. David N. Abdulai, the president of the African Graduate School of Management and Leadership in Ghana, writes:

Management education helps to develop the entrepreneurs, managers and administrators needed to manage Africa’s private and public sector institutions effectively.

The Africa Academy of Management launched its own journal earlier this year, saying it was “the right time” for a space devoted to management and organisations on the continent. The academy said its first rationale for the journal was:

… the need to increase the publication and dissemination of management knowledge focused on Africa.

Universities and managers

There has been a rise of management education programmes at Africa’s universities. Research by the African Development Bank, the OECD Development Centre and the United Nations Development Programme has tracked a 75% rise in tertiary education on the continent from 2000 to 2015 (see table below). Social science and management education contribute approximately 44% of graduates to economies in sub-Saharan Africa each year.

Tertiary education is on the rise - but are we producing the right kinds of graduates? African Economic Outlook

These programmes should prepare capable professionals to work as effective managers in different organisational settings. But I and my colleagues in management faculties have frequently been told by African management graduates that it’s hard to apply their classroom lessons in the work place.

This disconnect between lecture halls and offices isn’t unique to Africa. Employers worldwide are questioning whether graduates are actually properly prepared for the real world of work. Universities and colleges, meanwhile, complain that they aren’t getting enough buy-in from industry to make their programmes relevant.

Pockets of excellence

There are a few examples in Africa of business schools that are getting it right. Their success seems to stem from two things: a focus on teaching African managers for the continent’s many and varied contexts and, crucially, an understanding that learning is a two-way street. The colonial style of arriving in a country and declaring your way the right way is long gone.

In South Africa, business schools at the universities of Stellenbosch, Cape Town and the Witwatersrand have started developing Africa-focused case studies. So, too, have Nigeria’s Lagos Business School and the Strathmore Business School in Kenya.

Some institutions in Europe and the US have developed a partnership-based approach. The Catholic University in Milan, Italy, offers a Master’s degree in social entrepreneurship. Through this programme, students identify and help to develop entrepreneurs in Ghana and Kenya. The students train these entrepreneurs to work and succeed in their local economies.

Programmes for the African context

Management is a multidisciplinary field. It draws from other academic disciplines like commerce, economics, engineering, psychology and sociology. It’s important that students get the theoretical knowledge they need from curricula. But that knowledge isn’t much use if students aren’t also developing the skills they need to apply it in the work place.

Tanzania’s economy is growing strongly, but poverty levels are still high and the growth is not equitable. So, the discussions held in a board room in Dar es Salaam are necessarily very different to those held in New York.

In Tanzania, workers will largely want to meet their immediate life needs but will have to do so with limited resources and a lack of technical know-how. In New York, on the other hand, discussions are likely to centre around global expansion, penetrating global markets and managing existing knowledge.

Abdulai argues that most management or business schools on the continent simply mimic what is offered by their counterparts in the Western world. There is rarely any difference between the course material, the textbooks and the case studies being examined in New York and Lagos.

Can we really expect managers to succeed in African business environments if they are cutting their teeth on case studies that sprung from American and British boardrooms? A generation of copycat managers won’t be able to advance the continent’s economic growth, nor the innovation that’s necessary to bolster existing industries or create new opportunities.

The current management education system evolved to meet the economic growth needs of developed countries. But African economies are emerging: they have a different set of sustainable development priorities.

Perhaps universities should approach this issue by thinking like managers. They could start by conducting needs assessments in the market that’s waiting for their graduates. Armed with this knowledge, they will have a better idea of how to shape their course work. Alongside this, African management teachers need to develop learning material that is unique and relevant to the continent.

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