Business Education Comes to the Forefront
The new economy needs new managers
There were times when a professional did not need a degree in business administration to become an executive. Things are different now. Today both state-run enterprises and private companies need educated managers in order to grow and consolidate their positions on the market. In market economies such professionals are trained by a broad network of business schools that have well-established educational traditions, curriculums, standards and technologies. How are things with business education in Belarus? Is the country that has set a course for sustainable development of the private sector able to provide the domestic economy with well-trained professionals? These and other questions were addressed by the Belarus Economy Magazine to Director of the School of Business and Management of Technology (SBMT) of the Belarusian State University (BSU), Chairman of the Belarusian Association of Business Education, Professor Vladimir APANASOVICH.
Mr Apanasovich, a simple question to start with: economics is taught in many universities across Belarus and many believe that there are many more economics students than the domestic economy really needs. There-
fore, why would we need to make a focus on business education?
It is true, things are not simple here. Traditional universities focus on economic processes at the level of regions, states and the world in general. Therefore, graduates are well familiar with analysis methods, can evaluate a company’s performance and make a general picture of its economic stance, in other words, they know economic analysis theory.
Business education, on the other hand, is designed to train specialists who can create, manage and expand a business and address very specific and clear-cut tasks aimed at helping a company grow and prosper in the market environment.
When did we turn our eyes towards business education? It happened in the second half of the 1990s when the economy started embracing market reforms, Belarusian companies began penetrating foreign markets and faced fierce competition. It became obvious back then that the things taught by Soviet universities had been antiquated and the “old-school” economists were unable to deal with the new challenges.
Unfortunately, up till now the majority of Belarusian managers, in particular, top managers of staterun and private companies, have only industry-specific education and lack deep knowledge in economy and management. Therefore, they tend to rely on their intuition and experience and are often disoriented while making and implementing development plans, first of all strategic plans, for their companies.
Investors who start joint ventures in Belarus often point to the high potential (I would like to emphasize that it is only potential) of the managerial personnel and their poor practical training. In other words, investors have problems finding a specialist who would be able to start working for the company without preliminary training. Often Belarusian specialists need to be retrained, and their skills need to be updated in line with international practices.
Business education helps resolve these issues, doesn’t it? But how? What does it focus on?
You know, market economies realized a long time ago that management should be taught and learnt and it should be studied seriously and constantly. Management is not a job description, but a profession. By the way, the MBA, a famous international business education program, is designed to educate professional managers. A person who has completed an MBA course can lead any company in any industry: in the service sector today and in the manufacturing industry tomorrow. We are still unaccustomed to that, while it is already an established tradition in the West. Today more than half of top managers of the world’s leading companies have an MBA degree in addition to their industry-specific education.
Generally speaking, business education differs from a traditional education system. Firstly, all business education courses comply with certain international standards and requirements. It is very good, because this allows professionals from different countries to speak the same language.
Secondly, the business education system takes full advantage of innovative training methods, like distance learning, coaching, case method. For example, students receive lectures in an electronic form and study them independently. In classrooms they discuss and analyze various situations and cases. Naturally, a great number of experienced executives, economists and foreign specialists are broadly engaged in the education process. Finally, the system suggests active involvement of business organizations in the personnel training process.
The international experience shows that business education should be provided by business schools set up at universities. Such schools position themselves as mobile rapid-response entities with a high degree of involvement in the country’s economy.
Your school has been a pioneer in this new area of education. How did it happen? Is it popular or, more precisely, in demand among those who want to get a degree in economics?
We started from scratch as there was no business education in Belarus as such. The school was founded in 1996 as part of the BelarusianAmerican educational project. We traveled a lot. We watched, studied, sent our teachers for internship abroad and hosted foreign lecturers here. We adopted teaching experience and technology.
Over the years, we have established a good foundation – we developed curricula, worked out the structure of the school, put together a creative team of professors, embraced new technologies, and achieved a fairly high level of quality of education. The school has gained popularity and is rated high among those who pursue first university degrees and those who wish to get the second degree or master’s degree, or roll into retraining or advanced training programs. From 2007 to 2010 SBMT acted as the official coordinator of the government program of innovation development in the field of retraining and improvement of professional skills of specialists in priority areas of science, technology and innovation.
Currently the school offers first university degree (full-time and correspondence) in such majors as “Business administration”, “Logistics”, “Information management”. The first two majors are also offered to those who pursue a second higher education. The Master’s degree program (the second stage of tertiary education) features such majors as “Innovation management”, “Technologies of personnel management”, “Management of logistics systems”, “Business administration”. The retraining program (additional education) includes seven majors. The school offers eleven programs for improvement of qualifications.
The majority of our students are educated and highly motivated people, as it is not cheap and easy to study at our school. Having gained some work experience in a particular field, seeking to realize their potential, they come to the school with a desire to build a career and to acquire the necessary knowledge and practical skills for that.
And another interesting observation. Earlier most of our students were representatives of private companies, who paid for themselves. Some of them preferred to keep this information secret from their employers (as it was seen as a signal that the person was going to quit). Today the situation is changing. We see the interest on the part of enterprises in training specialists for various business sectors, and particularly in the MBA program that trains professional managers. The demand for skilled creative managers is growing, and this is a good sign for the economy.
How big is the demand for your graduates in general? Does the school keep an eye on their careers? How actively is business involved in training of business personnel?
Of course, we try to keep in touch with our graduates. The school has established alumni associations, hosts meetings, conducts questionnaires. We also interview the managers who employ our young professionals and are ready to evaluate their performance. It helps adjust the learning process and liaise with employers. I must say that, in general, graduates with an SMBT degree are in demand in the labor market, many of them already have their own business, or hold managerial positions. Today, for example, the demand is high for logistics specialists and marketing experts not only on the part of privately-held companies but also state-run enterprises.
However, as in the case of the entire higher education system, the link between university curricula and the market and industry needs is still the bottleneck. We believe we train very good specialists, while employers remain dissatisfied. It would seem a business should understand this issue better as it has more opportunities to get involved in the training process and shape the demand. However, so far our relations with business have not been exceptionally good. At best they would say: “Give us some good specialists and we will choose.”
But with this approach, a focus on practical training and responsibility disappear. We are ready to come up with programs to train specific skills. There are all prerequisites for that. We are prepared to enter into long-term agreements with business to train certain professionals and even entire divisions. Of course, for that we need a contract with an employer.
I have raised the issue on numerous occasions. However, very few respond to our call and come to give a lecture, talk and sign a contract.
Another significant problem of the national business education is a limited number of good places for internship, i.e. modern organizations with well-developed standards of management. Of course we find ways out. Thanks to international agreements students have an opportunity to study the operation of well-known companies in Germany, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania. This year, for instance, MBA students will have a chance to go to Japan for on-the-job training. In particular, they will visit Toyota Motor Corporation and get familiar with the Japanese management model KAIZEN.
It would be great, however, if domestic companies were open for those who get business education.
The school runs the Career Development Center. What is it for and who does it cater for?
A traditional university stays in direct touch with its graduates mainly at the work assignment stage after graduation. SBMT keeps the issues of employment in sight starting from the very first year of education. The Career Development Center offers special courses and events where students learn to write resumes, have trial interviews. The school has signed special agreements with big companies which HR managers are invited to give lectures.
The school collects information on vacant positions which students might occupy during their studies. Our academic staff help students write resumes and even, if the employer does not mind, come together with them for a job interview.
The center caters, first of all, for school-leavers or so-called Generation Y. Unfortunately, our system of higher education in general, train-
ing methods and technologies hardly take into account the new mentality of today’s students.
What are the main features of Generation Y?
The main one is motivation for fast and concrete results. The main motivation for us, I mean, Generation X, was education which would gradually lead to recognition, prosperity and so on. Many have accomplished it like this: hard studies have finally brought them results.
Today’s young generation, and everyone acknowledges it, seeks to get immediate results. Our higher education system is still unready to make the most of this kind of motivation.
We have an eye on our students and see that those who come to get a second degree (as I have already stated these people have certain professional background – for instance, only specialists with two-year working experience can enroll into the MBA programs) are aimed at concrete skills which can be immediately applied in practice.
Literally: having studied the material beforehand they come to the class in the evening to discuss the key moments with the teacher and each other. The next day they try to apply this knowledge at their workplace and see how it works. This model of learning is efficient for the experienced audience and is incredibly difficult for students who come from school with no practical skills under the belt.
These problems are widespread. It means we need new instruments, approaches to the learning process, involvement of companies and business unions into the training process. Just have a look at the universities from developed countries. Alongside with the classical cultural, educational and research mission they start making business steps. As a matter of fact, universities turn into commercial organizations where knowledge and technologies are used for economic and social development. They create competitive advantages for regional and national economies. For instance, it has been calculated that students, academic staff and alumni of the prominent Stanford University have
set up about 39,000 companies. If we take them as a separate economy, it would become the world’s tenth biggest economy with 5.4 million jobs and $2.7 trillion in annual revenue.
It is absolutely obvious that in the 21st century universities gradually turn into some sort of business incubators which create favorable conditions for entrepreneurial activities for students, the academic staff and workers, cultivate the entrepreneurial culture and positive attitude to entrepreneurship. It is a general trend for higher education development.
You are the Chairman of the Belarusian Association of Business Education that includes a number of universities. Your colleagues and you have certainly built up a strategic vision of business training. What improvements does it need? Which goals are priority?
The establishment and development of the national system of business education goes in the tideway of global trends in general but, unfortunately, it still lags behind and is often contradictory.
The process is slowed down mainly by the high level of involvement with the traditional academic system of higher education. As a result, business education is regulated by a great number of provisions and instructions from the Education Ministry which do not take into consideration all the specifics of this segment and often directly contradict internationally recognized formats of management training.
For instance, it is difficult to shift to credit-modular education system within academic institutions and take full advantage of innovative education methods, including distance learning opportunities.
An obvious disadvantage is a lack of integration of the national system with the international education system. We have contacts and ties but we do not have fully-fledged joint projects with foreign business schools. Our national programs are mostly focused on the domes-
tic market and are not recognized internationally and graduates are not competitive at foreign markets. This is not very good for a country with an export-oriented economy where managers have to be as qualified as their foreign counterparts.
We are not entirely satisfied with the situation regarding the postgraduate training program. The program was established in 2010 in line with the Education Code, however, the status of its graduates is still unclear. There is no distinction in the national legislation between university diploma and Master’s degree holders when they are looking for a job. Naturally, there is no distinction in salaries either. Whereas in many countries having a Master’s degree is a mandatory requirement for a ministry employee, which means that those who do not have it would not qualify for certain positions.
Another great problem is the training of teachers for the business education sector and not only for it. Today they are mainly middle-aged people who have difficulties with adopting innovation education methods especially new information technologies. A special government program or a solid system of personal grants are needed to nurture high-class educators of business disciplines in Belarus.
We would like to change the financing scheme of the business administration education and seek opportunities to attract private investors and international grants.
Experience received within the Association of Business Education gives us reasons to believe that we are moving in the right direction but very slowly. In our view, setting up a national business institute working according to international standards could speed up the process. It would not only fulfill functions of an academic institution of this segment of higher education creating advanced technologies and preparing business teachers but would also act as a coordinator of state programs on management training in the priority areas of the market economy.