Business schools as educational provocateurs of productivity via interrelated landscapes of practice


By Dr Tony Wall and Dr Madeleine Jarvis, University of Chester

In an ever-changing and global marketplace, it could be argued that the role of business schools is no longer to train graduates for specific roles. Whilst this concept that we are educating ‘for jobs that don’t yet exist’ has become more widely accepted, educational practices in business schools are arguably still contained by traditional Western practices of individualistic student instruction.  Indeed, even the relevance of academic theory to practice has sparked heated debate in business schools for some time and has led to calls for a different attitude of engagement with theory (Ramsey, 2011, 2014). Some have pushed the debate from relevance to relevating as a process of challenge, change and impact (Paton, Chia and Burt, 2014). But even this is insufficient to spark forms of business and management education which provoke new ways of thinking and acting in practice which are infused with social connectedness and are beyond single discipline thinking. Notions of ‘autonomous learning’ and working ‘critically’ may be viewed as a positive development from pedagogy to andragogy in UK tertiary education.  However, these can still be interpreted in deeply individualistic ways which are oppositional to notions of learning rooted in and oriented towards larger social groupings (Goodall, 2014, Yunkaporta and Kirby, 2011).  Simply ‘training’ individuals in specific management activities is likely to be insufficient in unlocking transformative (and productive) community action.  A new educational ontology of being is needed.

One provocative ontology that is ripe for picking is conceptualised in the African worldview of ubuntuism, meaning humanness. Though still relatively under-researched, some authors have conceptualised it as moving what it means to be human from ‘I think therefore I am’ towards 'I am because we are' or 'I am because we relate' (Wall, 2015, forthcoming, Wall and Perrin, 2015). This is a radical departure from the individualism in many Western educational systems but which instead amplifies the relatedness of an individual, in a social and ecological context.  It moves beyond individualistic learning to contextualised community knowledge creation and sharing.  In doing so, it may encourage resilience, flexibility and diversity.  In the context of unlocking productivity, ubutu inspired approaches may offer a radically different way of developing expertise for new (or not yet created) workplaces. 

To make sense of productivity in terms of this new ontology of being means we have to radically reconceptualise education towards interrelatedness. Ubuntu-inspired education practices will be grounded in humanness (placing high value on each individual’s needs), belonging (encouraging interconnectedness of students to the learning content and to the learning community), and situatedness (recognising students’ ideas and resources based on their cultural and work experiences). As such, this may in turn require radical re-conceptualisations of what is taught, how it is taught and how it is assessed.

  1. What is taught

Despite significant developments in HE pedagogies, it could be argued that the content of a business school curriculum has remained largely unchanged in the past 20 years. Students are developed as either specialists (e.g. accountancy, human resource management, marketing) or generalists (as in Business Studies or Management courses), with limited exposure to cross-discipline thinking or learning.  The singularity of the ‘business school’ instils or perhaps perpetuates divisions between the boardroom and the labs, the ‘shop floor’ or the community. Ubuntu-inspired teaching practices emphasise the theoretical foundations of systemic thinking and acting, and the interrelatedness to ecosystems.  Developing curricular which is grounded in humanness, belonging and situatedness (Wall, 2015, forthcoming) means opening the doors of the business school and engaging in multiple communities and disciplines.  Learning and knowledge is therefore developed horizontally, via open and collaborative enquiry and dialogue rather than via a traditional instructional approach, based purely on the ‘known-knowns’. 

  1. How it is taught

In placing humanness at the core, ubuntu-inspired pedagogy prioritises individually tailored learning to personal and professional development needs, with strong elements of self-directed learning (Wall, 2013). This may include the use of individually negotiated learning plans or contracts at programme level and at unit level, personal tutors to facilitate learning, as well as a more balanced power relation between the learner and their tutor (Talbot, 2010). This contextual, personalised and tailored approach moves beyond student centred, with its implications of ‘student as consumer’ (Weimer, 2005), but encourages diversity and new ways of thinking and acting.  Reflecting the spirit of ‘ubuntu’ in this regard, teachers are creating a learning environment in which students feel more than just being respected but importantly empowered as an active  member, productive learner and valuable contributor to the learning community.

  1. How it is assessed

Ubuntu may be described as a worldview based on the “indivisibility of human nature, and the commonness of purpose of human beings which make… interests, aspirations and objectives intertwined” (Pityana, 1999, p. 168). Within such a worldview, being human is about expressing humanism towards and with others, with fairness as a central tenet towards mutual personal wellbeing (Letseka, 2012). ‘Success’ in this context therefore models the connectedness to others (and the land and social systems around us).  Knowledge and action is socially produced and socially valued in terms of the contribution it makes to the community.  Equally, there is an intrinsic ethic of care: if you are facing challenges or risk failure, so do I and therefore I am compelled to act and support. Assessment therefore moves from the recognition of individual knowledge assimilation or application, to the shared development of all.

Ubuntu-inspired educational practices remain under-researched within management education, but the tenets of such an approach are reported to be significant in a number of ways: student adjustment, performance and success (Rienties et al., 2012, Masjuan and Troiano, 2009), learning ‘sustainability’ in terms of interrelatedness to land and wider communities (Ralph and Stubbs, 2014), and learning psychological resilience under the pressures of modern society (Caruana, 2014). Yet scholars question how such aspirations can be met in contemporary educational settings characterised by high levels of consensualism, competitiveness and individualism (see Mungwini, 2011, O’Flaherty et al., 2011).  The humanist and collectivist notions that are central to the ubuntu worldview currently sit in opposition to the individual expectations of benefit and gain that are prevalent in within the UKHE context of higher fees and notions of students as consumers.  Despite this challenge, ubuntu-inspired pedagogies may offer a new, and radically different, approach to developing responsible managers (as called for by the UN via The Principles of Responsible Management Education (PRME) initiative), with the capacity to mobilise their resilience, with skills that are transferable and useful across careers and industries, but also in the broader spheres of the family and community. This thought piece is a therefore a call to action for business schools to operationalise ubuntu principles in ways which allow us to tackle the productivity crisis whilst not losing sight of our interrelatedness and interconnectedness to others and our environment, which has been too prevalent in the past.


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