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Why business matters

Professor Jayne Godfrey and Molly Freeman explain why the importance and relevance of business education and research has never been greater

I was recently thrilled to see Kea New Zealand recognise entrepreneur and innovator Fady Mishriki at the World Class NZ Awards. During his acceptance speech, Fady commented that when people ask him what to invest in, his response is always the same: New Zealand universities. This was largely in recognition of the tremendous boost to his career that he credits to his studies at the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Engineering and Faculty of Business and Economics.

Why is it relevant that Mishriki studied both engineering and business? Because, while the importance of STEM subjects cannot be undermined, business matters. Business is the principal engine of economic growth, employment creation and prosperity, the vehicle for improving living standards and quality of life, not just for individuals but for entire societies. And it is business that enables science, engineering, arts and creative industries to reach viable fruition and contribute most effectively to the New Zealand economy and society. 

In Mishriki’s case, his engineering innovation was able to reach fruition in PowerbyProxi, a wireless recharging company, because his business education equipped him with the entrepreneurial skills needed to take his ideas to market. Apple’s acquisition of PowerbyProxi in 2017 highlights the obvious value and benefits of having both a STEM and business education. 

New Zealanders face an increasingly dynamic, technology-driven and globalised work environment. Technological advancements mean significant changes for the nature of work. The gig economy already exists, and emerging career paths require enhanced skill sets and new employment models, and industry boundaries are increasingly blurred. This is perhaps best exemplified by the metamorphosis of traditional accounting and auditing firms into business advisory services firms. 

The recent A Future That Works report from the Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Council (PMBAC) recognises the impact that technology, in particular automation, will have on business and jobs in New Zealand, the importance of lifelong learning, and the need for education, training and up-skilling as jobs and businesses continue to evolve.

Business is the principal engine of economic growth, employment creation and prosperity, the vehicle for improving living standards and quality of life, not just for individuals but for entire societies. 

However, the report fails to fully acknowledge the significant contribution that higher education will play in understanding and influencing these developments and trends, and in developing the knowledge, capability and skills required to succeed in such a dynamic workforce. 

The report also ignores the critical roles that individual disciplines will play in the future of work, and the increasing importance of collaboration and integration across these disciplines. 

In particular, it understates the importance of business education and research in understanding the future of work, and developing the ideas, knowledge and insights that lead to sustainable business practices, greater productivity, and a stronger economy. Given that government-funded research shows the biggest threat to New Zealand’s manufacturing sector is lack of management capability, and management capability is required to progress in the current volatile business environment, the importance and relevance of business education and research has never been greater.

Yet, this conclusion is not reflected in the lack of funding available for business research in New Zealand. Recent grants from the Marsden Fund (established by the government to fund all areas of research) show that despite business school staff in New Zealand outweighing staff in psychology 3:1, they achieve less representation on Marsden panels and less overall success in achieving funding. Indeed, business does not even have its own panel and is included in a panel that opines the relative merits of studies from psychology to cognitive science, cognitive linguistics, archaeology and physical anthropology.  

Ignoring business research and education is dangerous, and it is detrimental to the success of our university graduates, New Zealand businesses and the economy. Currently declining enrolments in disciplines such as accounting and finance reflect a lack of understanding that these disciplines contain fundamental knowledge required by anyone planning to be involved in a business or entrepreneurial venture; an engineer managing a project that involves understanding budget and costs; a scientist hoping to commercialise their discovery or invention; or an art curator working to a budget. In turn, any lack of business knowledge and expertise will negatively impact businesses and their chances of sustainability and success.

With the wonderful talent and innovation that already exists across New Zealand, it now remains for New Zealand to take business higher education and research seriously so that our businesses and economy can reach their full potential. 

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