Despite the snowballing of the COVID-19 vaccination across the world, we are about to meet the approaching new academic year with still much uncertainty. Business Forward speaks to Baniyelme D. Zoogah, associate professor of management at the Department of Management and Entrepreneurship at Williams College of Business, Xavier University. Zoogah is a founding executive of the Africa Academy of Management (AFAM), an affiliate of the Academy of Management. His published research focuses on green management, strategic human resources management, and has authored two books on strategic followership titled “Strategic Followership: How Employees Contribute to Organizational Productivity” and “Theoretical Perspectives of Strategic Followership”. In this Q and A, Zoogah shares his views on the ongoing transformation in business education, strategic followership, skills for the future and climate action.
Is there any evidence or indication that the accelerated shift to online learning that the world witnessed is improving access to business education?
It does look like a direct relationship. However, there must be a mechanism in between. There has to be access to digital technology and by that, I mean the availability of infrastructure and equipment, as well as the intellectual capacity of the person to learn online. Why do I say that? Because the online [learning] has been there for a while. MOOCs -these Massive Online Open Courses- started in 2008. The whole idea is noble and good and was based on the notion of life-long learning, for individuals who cannot get to the physical institutions and can therefore learn at home. What happened since then is that evidence has shown a 90 percent dropout rate in MOOCs.
If you think of Africa, there is an infrastructure problem particularly in the rural areas, like electricity cuts, unreliable connections affecting software updates and security requirements. On a global scale, a majority faces these restrictions.
What COVID has done is hasten the process of business schools all going online at the same time. That created a problem for those who were not ready to go online immediately, and their learning has been affected. A survey by the Education Advisory Board survey categorizes students and adult learners as what they refer to as hesitators and others as accelerators, with the latter eager to learn and the former waiting to see.
When you look around, there is a mixed bag. Some students are questioning, others are proactive; some are learning online on their own, others are seeking help, and some want to come face-to-face. So, it is not yet time to conclude that this is how COVID has impacted business education.
Many business schools and universities in general are working towards being more attuned to their surroundings, communities, and more so to the private sector that eventually employs their graduates. In what forms should the involvement of the private sector take?
That’s an interesting question. In my opinion, business schools have four roles to play: education, information, development, and transformation. Because education institutions provide general knowledge, they cannot know what is happening in the companies, which is specific knowledge. So, what sometimes happens is that the general knowledge and its application in the company are not compatible. So, you sometimes find companies saying let’s come in and design these systems that would fit our needs. There is nothing wrong with that, except that in terms of functionality or expertise, companies are not experts in education. So when they come in with a business approach to education, sometimes you do not get good results.
For example, Google and Facebook are giving certificates. That is not bad, but it is supplementary, not substitutional.
Perhaps what needs to change is how students are assessed. Businesses coming into that and into curricula development can be a good change for business education to be more adapted to the current situation.
You have authored two books about ‘strategic followership’. Could you tell us more about that?
Strategic followership is a whole new stream of research in my field because people don’t know a lot about it, as they do about leadership. To have a leader you have to have a follower. What I did was to recognize that the top-down approach which is advocated by strategic leadership has to be complemented by a bottom-up approach, which is strategic followership.
There are two major types of behavior. There are restorative behaviors and there are transcendent behaviors. Restorative behavior simply refers to actions that repair or undo harm or diminished value. Transcendent behaviors are behaviors that optimize sub-level outcomes that leaders have done. So strategic followership is about how someone in a followership role, a subordinate or an employee, can contribute strategic value to the organization.
Speaking of contribution to the organization, what skills and competencies should people invest time on to be effective in their organizations?
At the global level, due to COVID there is what I would call value diminishment. Once the pandemic is over, this value will need to be restored. So, for organizational effectiveness, the key processes involve people with both cognitive and analytical skills, with the required competencies and behaviors; as well as the right strategies, decisions and actions; and the operations, innovation and processes. All this requires some restorative actions for businesses to go back up to the level at which they were pre-COVID.
The global pandemic has somehow pushed climate change to fortunately become at the forefront of priorities and policy discussion. Do you think this will reflect in Africa and this part of the world?
Environmental sustainability in general is a problem in Africa for various reasons. One is that African countries are still on the quest for development; two, they need to sustain their economies; and three, they don’t have the institutional mechanisms and infrastructure to cater for environmental sustainability. So, they will pay lip service to climate action, but not take drastic measures, and that will be a challenge. The Africa free trade agreement means that industrialization is going to rise up, and as a major motivator it means that as companies put profits ahead of sustainability, they will inevitably be using up natural resources.
It is different in advanced and industrialized economies. They now have to come up with sustainable technologies, and they have the institutions that can ensure that this is done. Whereas in Africa, we don’t have those mechanisms to control. Additionally, there are external influencers, such as when advanced economies pay [African] governments pittances in compensation for using their resources. That is used as a basis for not worrying about the environment for now.