Enabling Business-Government Engagement: A View From South Africa

The business school's role in fostering relationships between business and government.

Business schools are increasingly called upon to play a role not only in driving economic performance but also in nurturing social impact. Given the dire state of inequality that persists in many of the world’s emerging markets, particularly in my home continent of Africa, a business school’s social connectedness is an imperative. But what of its role in fostering relationships between business and government?

At the University of Pretoria’s Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS), our engagement with projects that seek to create inclusive growth and shared value has shown that government is often a critical actor—whether in its capacity of policy-maker, regulator, funder, or any of the other multiple roles governments play. Strengthening relationships between government and business can be tricky in any context, but in emerging market contexts, particularly when exposed to volatile operating conditions, this engagement can be fraught with tension.

As South Africa battles in its postcolonial journey to overcome its challenges and build a non-sexist, non-racial democratic society, the business sector is increasingly called upon by government to drive inclusive growth, speed up its contribution to the country’s transformation agenda, and increase investment into the South African economy. Such calls are made against the backdrop of a weakening currency, regular changes in government policy, and what could be described by many in business as lackluster political leadership. Business accuses government of being inaccessible; government alleges that business is overly focused on shareholders and does not self-organize to facilitate easy engagement. On the rare occasions that individual corporate leaders have publicly criticized government, they have been castigated and the quality of communication and conversation between these essential stakeholders has declined.

"Enabling these relationships results in the co-development of initiatives that will ultimately contribute to inclusive economic development that serves business, government, and society."

When it comes to business and government, we believe that business schools have a role to play beyond researching and disseminating thought leadership about how business engages with the political environment and key actors including government officials. As a practice-focused school deeply engaged with business, we at GIBS believe we have a contribution to make in bringing business and government together to facilitate dialogue, create opportunities for joint learning projects, and foster engagement between the two parties. Enabling these relationships results in the co-development of initiatives that will ultimately contribute to inclusive economic development that serves business, government, and society.

The interventions vary in nature, but they inevitably begin with a request, often from business but increasingly from provincial or national government, to leverage our expertise in learning design to develop programs that bring participants together in a safe yet rigorous learning environment. Sometimes our role is short-lived. We recently hosted two events at which the ambassador and a number of regional CEO’s from multinationals headquartered in other countries have engaged with key leaders at the provincial government level to raise concerns and opportunities.

Other occasions involve detailed design that results in programs lasting months or years. For example, another program involved heads of communications in a number of government departments and their corporate counterparts in corporate affairs and communications embarking on a joint program that sought to not only elevate their skills and knowledge in the fields of communication and reputation management but also to foster informal engagement and interaction. A further initiative that will be launching shortly is designed around the needs of government and business actors across a range of industries, and will rely heavily on action and experiential learning to build understanding and the development of possible solutions to wicked problems that require multiple stakeholders to engage and co-create in order to move forward.

Many of these programs don’t just involve representatives from business and government. Our work in inclusive markets has shown the importance of bringing all actors into the room to learn from each other if we are to adopt a truly stakeholder-centric approach. Delivering such programs successfully has meant that we’ve had to build a number of key competencies. We’ve learned that creative and skilled program designers are essential to the success of such initiatives; faculty who teach and hold together these programs must not only be knowledgeable, but they must have superb facilitation skills. Further, a consistent focus in building key relationships with actors across the societal spectrum is essential if we are to enable learning experiences out of the classroom that truly have impact. While such programs are out of scope for many schools, for us they are a significant opportunity for our business school to make a contribution to nation-building.

Nicola Kleyn is dean of the Gordon Institute of Business Science at the University of Pretoria in South Africa. She is a presenter at AACSB International's 2016 Deans Conference.