Education

EDUCATION
The short course arena

Published: 07-FEB-07

Globalisation and the knowledge economy pose numerous challenges as well as opportunities for developing countries like SA.

Buoyant demand for executive talent has naturally brought with it new challenges, notably tougher competition, and as a result business schools are having to find ways to revitalise programmes to appeal to a discerning and time-stressed client base.

At the leading edge of this new course innovation is the UCT Graduate School of Business. Headed by Prof Elaine Rumboll, the school has successfully designed a suite of short courses.

Rumboll says continuous learning over the work-life is an imperative, as skills acquired in schools and in the workplace become obsolete more quickly and new and more complex skills are needed to respond to accelerating technological change and strategic management.

Which begs the question: Does training contribute to growth? The textbooks say yes and there is a good weight of analytical evidence to support this. But whether we reap the rewards of the government’s investment of fiscal and social resources into training and skills development programmes depends on several institutional dynamics that are not yet well worked out. This is partly about the information flows and incentives and choices or opportunities that link school, university, first entry into the workplace, career choice and further career development.

According to a Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) 2005 survey, only a third of graduates from local further education and training colleges find work, which implies that curriculums they study do not match the skills wanted by the market.

The survey found that only 51 percent of youth end up unemployed; only 7 percent of matriculants enter tertiary institutions, while 12 percent enter further education and training colleges, and other educational institutions.

According to the SA Graduate Development Association (Sagda), which deals with graduate development and placement, there are about 30 000 graduates who cannot find meaningful work.

Sagda business development officer, Semopo Mokgabudi, says higher education institutions were simply producing “unemployable graduates”.

The problem is that most students in tertiary institutions opt for social sciences because they lack career guidance. The humanities are also seen as an easy option, compared with engineering and accountancy.

Even on the hard, operational side, despite the technical brilliance of many South Africans, new times demand new thinking. This means constantly learning new skills, and managing existing ones better.

According to Rumboll, the market is not only growing, but it is also impatient for “punchy and relevant learning experiences that will have a lasting impact on their business practices”.

In a recent article, following a conference hosted by Europe’s premier learning body, the European Foundation for Management Development, she notes that to meet this new demand, business schools are wrestling with three questions, all related to balance: balance between content and process, between using faculty and using outside experts to mediate the programmes, and between customisation and off-the-shelf programmes.

In the past decade the content verses process debate has seen a marked shift away from purely content-based learning to a more process-driven experience.

“While what is being learned (academic theory) is still important, how it is being learned is increasingly being given additional weight.

In years gone by, the traditional MBA was the most relevant and rounded course design for young executives to gain a foothold in the market. Rumboll still believes the MBA is relevant, offering students a learning experience that “lays a theoretical foundation for executive management and business administration”. But she concedes that that in itself is inadequate in this day and age when business is globally fluid, more complex and ever-changing.

“Your average executive today is battling to keep up with the times where old learning experiences simply do not offer the management skills to strategically drive operations,” she says.

She adds that business schools have erred by looking at what they are doing right and scarcity in a bid for market share. “What I find interesting is that we don’t look at failure in a complex environment where a lot of the skill sets is about responding to change. Actual content knowledge lasts five years, which is why our course designs are about practice — lifelong learning in a changing world.”

So she advocates what she calls a “vitamin B injection for the mind” — essentially short executive courses that “focus on particular skills needed to respond to a changing environment”.

“It’s no longer about the prestigious qualification — the MBA. We need more than that.”

By way of example, take the UCT Graduate School of Business short course offering, which ranked among the top five in the world in an Economist Intelligence Unit global survey late last year.

“We look at dialoguing. It’s about not managing downwards which was the method of the old executive but hearing more diverse voices,” says Rumboll.

Sounds like gobbledegook to you? In essence, learning, Rumboll says, is contextualised.

“The executive learning experience recognises the balance between the emotional and rational dimensions of management — teamwork and strategy, for instance — and teaches executives how you can manage this by good design. It is how the whole package is put together that counts.”

She gives the example of an area in the course design called “mindfulness”. “How do you think with your guts? How do you change mindsets in a diverse environment? We focus on self-awareness. If you can’t do things differently how are you going to change things? These are the focus areas of the new course design.” -Business in Africa Magazine



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