What Does It Mean To Be An “African” Business School?

Piet Naudé

Professor Piet Naudé is Director of the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB) in South Africa.

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Piet Naudé describes how a rethink of African business schools could impact global business education.

A business school that happens to be located in Africa has to ask a few tough questions to unpack its “adjective” status.

To call a business school “African” can mean quitea number of things.

The sometimes hidden assumption underlying discussions of “African” business schools is that the “default” business school idea (without the geographical description) serves as the norm. One would rarely hear Harvard being called an “American” business school nor would IMD market itself as a “Swiss” school. They are simply “business schools”.

Both from a historical and globalisation perspective, schools in the West act as the actual benchmark. The status associated with the FT rankings ensures they remain the idealised “model” to which others (should?) strive.

This creates a typical centre-periphery constellation where those in the centre – without specific intent – serve as a normative ideal and those on the periphery aspire to become “like the centre”.

It also guarantees a dominant status to academic work done in the West due to asymmetrical power relations embedded in journals, publishers and conferences.

At a first level, speaking of an “African” business school could then simply refer to geographical (continental) location but not much more. This would imply that such schools are the same as business schools elsewhere and they attempt to do what dominant schools do by “copying” it in a different location.

The opening up of Western branches or education sites of business schools in Africa may stand in this tradition. A key marketing advantage is communicated: “You can get the best from America or Europe right here in Africa”, building on the assumption that “you will get exactly the same content and quality as in the home country – at a better price”. For a colonised mind, this works well.

At a second level, an African business school might say: “We are sensitive to our specific context. We therefore take the management and leadership theories developed in the West or elsewhere and interpret them in and for Africa”.

The textbooks, case studies and intellectual basis of such a school therefore lie outside of Africa and are translated for the African context. Creative applications are sometimes found and – because the canonical names and sources are cited – African scholars find that there is international interest in what they do and publish.

In this model, African business school academics are often invited to conferences to participate in the “African” or “emerging market” tracks. They are praised “for taking existing knowledge into new contextual applications”. The plenaries are, however, mostly reserved for “global” topics.

The difficult path for academic recognition from Africa lies in the triple interpretation and explanation that is required.

  • One first has to study and understand one’s own context because contextual awareness is a given when you live on the academic periphery
  • Then one has to study and understand – in English – the dominant literature and rich tradition of disciplinary knowledge in the West
  • Finally one has to engage in a fusion of the two horizons, where the dominant knowledge is interpreted and applied in local contexts

For the full article, you can view the PDF or listen to the podcast.

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