A unique African management theory: A new reality or just a pipe-dream?

By Wilhelm Crous MD of Knowledge Resources

In recent articles published in the Harvard Business Review and The Academy of Management Perspectives, African management practices were analysed and discussed. Interestingly, this coincides with the publication of our latest book Ubuntu: Shaping the current workplace with (African) wisdom, by Prof Vuyisile Msila.

Over the last 20 years only a few articles were published in search of an African management theory/philosophy/practice. This reflects how little research has been conducted on African management by Academic Institutions. The result is that many of the world’s organisations and management scholars know very little about business practices in Africa.¹ (Ironically, Knowledge Resources published a number of books about 20 years ago focusing on African Management and specifically Ubuntu in the Workplace). As a matter of fact only 101 academic articles were published during the 2000-2011 period internationally². And the result is most African management practices remain based on Euro-centric/Anglo Saxon and Asian practices.

The question is how efficient are these practices in Africa?

In analysing 1 500 senior executives across the world, Gurnek Bains identified major differences between leaders in sub-Sahara Africa, Europe and the US (Harvard Business Review, May 2015).ᵌ

Executives in Africa outscored their European, American and Asian counterparts in the following areas:

 

  • Intellectual flexibility
  • Creativity
  • Team development
  • Drive and ambition
  • Breadth of experience

 African executives scored lower on the following dimensions:

 

  • Commercial thinking
  • Analytical thinking
  • Strategic thinking
  • Being organised, structured
  • Inclusive, leads through others
  • Visionary and emotionally compelling
  • Growth orientation
  • Emotional openness and authenticity
  • Engaging, latitude, building relationships
  • Forms close, deep bonds
  • Collaboration

Although these findings are useful, it appears there is still a need for a uniquely African management philosophy. Over the years, various academics like Prof Goodman at UJ or Benjamin Inyanalik and prominent business leaders such as Reuel Khoza and Clem Sunter have called for the development of such a theory.

The development of such a theory has been hampered by various obstacles…

 

Benjamin Inyang from the University of Calabar in Nigeria puts it more strongly: “The evolution and development of indigenous management theories and practices in Africa has been seriously affected and retarded by colonialism”. This has been aggravated by a lack of research facilities, inter-cultural differences, the inability of managers in Africa to document their experiences and the relative newness of management as a discipline in African academic institutions⁶.

Various researchers and commentators concur that Ubuntu, as practiced by managers and leaders in the workplace, is central to an African Management philosophy. Van den Heuvel from the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam states that: “Ubuntu as a normative concept has the potential to generate a reservoir of unimaginable power. Its particular appeal lies in the encouragement of a sense of belonging and (Africa) identity in-the-making, self-consciousness, liberation, and entrepreneurship⁷. However, Prof Goodman stresses that for Ubuntu to become mainstream in management and leadership practices, “it will have to become part of the mainstream of academia discourse on business and management”⁸.

Prof Vuyisile Msila who is Head of the Institute for African Renaissance Studies at UNISA has just published a new book: “Ubuntu: Shaping the current workplace with (African) wisdom”. This is a tremendous addition in shaping an African Management Theory. This book also provides practical applications and guidelines to practice Ubuntu in the workplace.

To celebrate the publication of “Ubuntu: Shaping the current workplace with (African) wisdom” and to further encourage the debate and knowledge sharing around an African management theory and practice, Knowledge Resources has organised two high level seminars: African Indigenous knowledge systems: The challenge and implications for the world of work on 2nd September 2015 at the Southern Sun Hotel in Pretoria and 3rd September 2015 at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Rosebank, Johannesburg. Some of the African continent’s leading authorities on indigenous knowledge systems and African management theory, including Ubuntu, will lead the discussions around this most important theme. We hope to see you there!

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