Middle East & Northern Africa Jam: November 2018

Middle East & Northern Africa Jam: November 2018 was the sixth in a series of regionally focused dialogues on business education. Held in partnership with the EFMD Middle East & Africa Conference, this conversation brought together leading business school deans from across the Middle East to discuss the future of business education globally as well as in the Middle East & Northern Africa. The Jam was held at the Abu Dhabi University College of Business in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

Topics discussed included:

  • How can business education enhance its value to students, employers, and society?
  • How will technology continue to challenge the model of business education? With alternative learning models/ players, at what point will traditional, physical Business School education be disrupted?
  • How can academia and industry better collaborate to make sure that students develop critical leadership and management competencies?
  • What roles should B-Schools and industry play in developing the next generation of entrepreneurs and innovators?

A summary of findings included:

1) Attracting and Retaining Academic Talent

Following are some of the key areas universities should work on to attract and retain good academics from across the world:

  1. Accreditation, such as AACSB and EQUIS, is something that academic around the world value and would encourage them to work in the MENA region. Although it may not be something that students in the region specifically seek, it is an important value proposition for academics.
  2. International conferences in the region would enable academics to visit the place and network with faculty members working here in order to get a good understanding of the educational institutions and culture. This would also help displace some of the misconceptions they have about the political and economic risks affiliated with the Middle East.
  3. International Partnerships with business schools in the West is another way to bringing in talented faculty members and familiarizing them with the culture of working here.
  4. Non-Monetary Compensation packages for academic talent should include incentives for conducting research. Since most business schools are inclined towards teaching, it is important that their existing business models be modified to incorporate elements that attract research-oriented academics. Examples include academic terms with designated slots for doing only research with no or minimal teaching loads.
  5. Strategies to create long-term positions in universities is required to attract quality academics mainly because most countries in the region do not have a provision for permanent residency. This has led to a trend where most of faculty members only intend to work here for a couple of years (before moving or returning to European or other Western universities). A recent provision in the law that offers long-term visas (instead of the standard 2-year contract) for PhD holders could be used for this purpose.
  6. The perception of Dubai as a destination for shopping/entertainment should also be changed to something that relays the message that it is also in fact an emerging hub for quality educational institutions and word-class education. This would require a strong focus on international accreditations/rankings and a review of strategies that were adopted by other regions (such as Singapore) that have successfully developed an orientation towards knowledge-based economies.

A key issue in this discussion is also the emphasis on attracting and retaining top academic talent which implies the talent would need to be brought in from somewhere and cannot be grown inside the region. It is essential that educational institutes also work towards developing existing talent to match international standards; the region’s DBA and PhD programs are an important step in this direction.

It is also essential that the academic talent that does come to the region spends a substantial amount of time working and contributing to the development of academic knowledge specific to the region. Faculty members currently working in universities here should be encouraged to research local case studies and contribute to literature, providing insights into organizations that exist in the MENA.

The actual experience of academics currently working in the region regarding its political and economic climate is very different from the perception outside observers have of the MENA region. Anecdotal evidence suggests that academics and students alike are apprehensive about working and studying at local institutions in the region as they do not have a real sense of what happens on the ground, but rather rely on their preconceived notions supported by stereotypical depiction of the region on mainstream media. One solution is to invite academics and potential students here to see the ground realities and get a personal view about the realities of  universities in the MENA.

2) Emerging Role of Technology in Business Education

It is fair to say that digital platforms play and will continue to play a major role in business education in the region. Some of the key technologies and platforms are:

  1. Blended and Hybrid learning technologies that merge traditional face-to-face classrooms with online modes of teaching, which works really well for MBA students who are mostly employed and cannot commit to a full-time on campus program. This is also an effective way to reach to students who are located at remote areas and do not have access to nearby quality institutions
  2. Work place learning initiatives using technologies that incorporate a practice-based approach with traditional classroom learning in a manner that students learn from experiencing real-life corporate settings
  3. Project Partnerships with international institutions using digital technologies that allows students in the region to work with international students across the globe
  4. Freely available online contents (such as MOOCs) should be combined with traditional programs to develop a more enriching experience for students with an emphasis on skilled-based components. Example: offering certification courses in collaboration with online education service providers that would complement the BBA in Digital Marketing program

Several international universities have implemented some form of hybrid learning models to ensure that quality education is delivered to students in remote areas and/or those who may not be able to commit to traditional learning cycles. Universities may also partner with online platforms, such as EdX (developed by academics in Harvard and MIT), to implement such educational models.

3) Developing World Class Business Programs

There is a consensus among academics that there has to be a certain replication of good practices among successful business programs that are of international quality. This includes both the course content and the testing process. However, it is also very important that these good practices are properly customized to adjust to the local settings.

There has to be an exchange of student and faculty particularly oriented towards being better trained to implement business programs. What has been identified in the region is a lack of resources and encouragement for student and faculty exchange. When it happens, it largely relies on students’ and faculty’s own funds, which is not a sustainable way to do it. We propose that there should be an Arab fund (inspired by the European Union fund) that would encourage exchange of students and faculty in the MENA region.

There is also a need in the region to encourage Vocational Training, not just executive education. Statistics from UNESCO indicate that there is a trend in the region where the gap between students who graduate from high school and those who enroll in universities is increasing. This is an area to which business schools should be more attentive to.

We also need to encourage cross-disciplinary education for business students. The era of having one instructor dedicated to teaching one specialized course is coming to an end, and we should be ready to adopt alternatives that allow multiple instructors (say up to 3) to teach multidisciplinary courses, such as data analytics. It appears that students and instructors are prepared for this change, but institutions are a little behind in setting up the mechanisms that would enable this to happen.

An inherent dilemma that exists when it comes to the specific instructors that teach a course lies in that most instructors that are teaching the courses have never actually experienced the course material that they are teaching beyond its theoretical boundaries. In essence, most faculty members teaching leadership or entrepreneurship are not leaders or entrepreneurs personally. A saying by Stephen Covey summarizes this as: to know and not do is really not to know.

One school of thought suggests that instructors should have practical experience in courses that they are teaching, however, it can also be argued that there are people who are excellent observers of greatness but may not be the greatness themselves. Examples include the great coaches in sports team that may have never played at the same level as the athletes that they are training, or renowned food critics that are not expert chefs themselves but understand the mechanics of culinary science better than the rest.

The key to business school education is to have an ecosystem of players that come from different backgrounds and can combine their experiences and initiatives in helping educate their students to move forward. It is not always necessary that someone must have done something to become a master at it. Accreditation bodies, such as the AACSB, also acknowledge this fact and have started broadening their classification to recognize individuals that come from different spheres of life and carry a range of valuable experiences that may contribute to quality business education.

4) The Importance of Maintaining a Global Focus

An important question business schools in the region face is regarding the orientation of their programs; should the programs and curricula be regionally focused and culturally inclusive or globally focused? The answer here cannot be one or the other. Business curricula should be designed in a manner that students understand regional situation but at the same time be open to global practice. This is the only way in which we will have an adequate flow of ideas that informs the curriculum. Needless to say, these ideas have to deal with two goals:

  1. Understand the different way in which business is done in the region; there are differences in behavior and culture from the West and also within the region (despite some homogenizing factors such as language and religion).
  2. Emphasize the importance of acculturation. It does matter and has two dimensions that must be covered in the curriculum:
    1. What foreign business need when they come here?
    2. How do we encourage local risk-taking and entrepreneurship?

This will allow local businesses to respond to the needs of foreign organizations that are looking to expand into the region.

The programs must also be aligned with national country goals. We cannot expect the curriculum in the Middle East to be loosely connected to the country goals, as most of the funding comes from the government. Graduates also find better jobs with government organizations/institutions. Therefore, curriculum needs to be adjusted to the needs of the government and national priorities.

The curriculum should also enable individual students to be able to become independent and dive into new ventures. These constitute basic core values and skills that help them stand on their own feet. Without these core values, any initiatives of the government to instill entrepreneurship and innovation in the economy.

Finally, we need to strengthen the link between universities and industry by moving further than just consulting and receiving funding. The aim should be to integrate the two by creating clusters or business centers that foster innovation and entrepreneurship. Essentially, universities should open up and bring startups and supportive technologies closer so that faculty members and industries can collaborate in a more integrated fashion.

5) Needs and Priorities of Business Schools in the GCC

Specific needs that business schools have identified include:

  1. Develop foundation level of enrolled students – universities need to strength foundation level of students that get enrolled in business schools. In most schools in the region, business education starts from Grade 10. A specific need of business schools is to strengthen the quality of business education students receive at that stage (high school).
  2. Competency stratification – involves segregating students based on what they are inclined towards or interested to study. Experience here suggests that instead of teaching all students a standardized set of courses/topics, it might be better to guide students towards achieving their specific interests and facilitating them in achieving the particular expertise required for the career/vocation of their choice.
  3. Improved Engagement – involves dynamic (and circular) interaction with other academics and other universities to learn how things are being done elsewhere, as well as close correspondence with corporations to understand the GCC-specific requirements and trends in industry. In this regard, it is extremely important that universities understand what the corporate sector needs from our business graduates.
  4. Innovative learning approaches and experiential learning activities in classrooms that develop skills such as critical thinking and prepare students for the workforce. It is important that we design our curricula and learning activities in a manner that pushes students to work by themselves (example: flipped classrooms in place of traditional lectures).

Keeping these needs in mind, business schools should aim to prioritize:

  • Designing industry-oriented curricula in consultation with industry partnerships
  • Adopting ongoing strategic partnerships with corporations
  • Co-opting other GCC-based universities
  • Developing attractive planner schemes to motivate students (such as the initiative in Singapore to remove the traditional grading system)
  • Optimizing internal and external resources
  • Increasing focus on vocational training

6) Assessment of the Needs of Employers in Business, Government and Society

Research indicates that very few employers in the GCC believe that university education prepares students with the necessary skills and attitude for work. Currently, following are some of the job readiness skills that business schools tend to emphasize:

  • ethics at work
  • financial analysis
  • technical analysis
  • project management
  • communication
  • teamwork
  • personal branding

The role of the educational institution should be to identify which of these skills need to be prioritized over the others. Additionally, the region should also ensure that there is a close  engagement with business by institutions, collectively as a public good, in order to have business programs that are relevant to the industry. While independent organizations (such as E&Y and British Council) have produced reports to that effect, a more reliable and comprehensive assessment should be made by business schools themselves if they intend to produce graduates that are career-ready.

7) Business Schools and the Fourth Industrial Revolution

What is specific to the industrial revolution to this region is that it comprises a young generation that is very technology savvy. Therefore, there is less need for unlearning; we are mostly starting with a clean slate. The countries here are young, open, and fluid in terms of change, thereby creating a lot of opportunities (such as building a knowledge economy) relevant to the digital revolution.

Opportunities relevant to business schools are based in the knowledge that future of work is different and that the jobs that exist today will not exist tomorrow. The skills required would be different in the future. The skills needed for our graduates have been identified, so what is required from business schools is to fill in the gap by developing innovative programs that are multidisciplinary and phenomena driven.

There are specific opportunities that arise because of emerging digital technology, especially in terms of new channels for reaching students, including hybrid classes and educational apps. It is required that business schools use these technologies to reach students where they already are.

One externality of digital technology usage in universities is that students – especially those who study part-time, owing to their busy schedules, expect instructors to be available outside of regular working hours and be accessible through email/instant messaging services to address their queries. To some instructors, this may seem as an intrusion of their privacy and personal time, while others may see this as an efficient and effective way to deal with student concerns. There appears to be a paradigm shift in this regard and an important question that instructors need to ask themselves is whether they will be available to their students and other university constituents at all times.