In this interview with PREMIUM TIMES, Lere Baale, a professor and the chief executive of Business School Netherlands (BSN) Nigeria, speaks about the importance of ‘action learning’ in today’s Nigeria and the challenges of running a post-graduate school during a pandemic. Here are the excerpts.
PREMIUM TIMES: Tell us how it has been running a school like this during a pandemic.
Lere Baale: The pandemic has brought about a number of challenges but those challenges also came with some opportunities. The pandemic made it more difficult for us to meet our students face to face but provided an opportunity for us to reach many of them at the same time. That’s now the case of a virtual connection rather than a physical meeting. The pandemic at least restricted the movement of people, but it made it possible for people to be able to have access to their lectures right from their bedrooms, their kitchens, and wherever they can have access to a phone or a medium. It’s a mixed blessing for us; we are able to access many students simultaneously, but recruiting new students have been more challenging because many will like us to present to them what it looks like and some of them would like to visit the school physically but because movement was restricted we couldn’t do that. After the restriction, people were not very comfortable going to mingle with other people. So, we’ve lost in the area of recruiting new students and we’ve gained in the area of having to reach multiple students at the same time, nationwide.
PT: How easy has it been to explore the virtual connection?
Baale: Initially it was challenging but like any other thing, once we started, we moved fast on the learning curve and today it is almost as good as natural physical lectures. We are able to interact with people you can see on the virtual reality and it became possible for them to also interact with us through questions and answer sessions, real-time. It’s been a beautiful opportunity for us.
PT: The CEO Magazine ranked the school Number 11 globally. How were you able to achieve such a feat?
Baale: Remember that the school has been in existence for over 32 years now. We only came to Nigeria 17 years ago, in 2003. It has been in existence for 32 years in the Netherlands. The school that was rated is the Business School Netherlands, globally not just Business School Netherlands, Nigeria. There have been a couple of things they have done very well, in terms of quality of faculties, it is exceptional and that has been a major point for us. Another major point is the issue of “Action Learning”. We are a pragmatic school. Even though we discuss case studies in class but in reality, we expect students to leave class today and in the next minute, they are already applying the things they’ve learnt on their job, in their organisations, so they become consultants in their organisations. And because of pragmatism, it has set us apart and it has increased learning and retention by the students as well because they are relating what they are learning in class, practically and pragmatically with the things they see in their places of work and that has become very helpful. That is what Nigeria requires not a case of graduates who are unable to practicalise what they are learning. We need to make it mandatory that whatever you are learning in class, you must practically apply most of them on the job immediately. And you are the one who has now become a consultant in your company, you are analyzing the gaps in the company and you are making recommendations and influencing the implementation of such things at work.
PT: Why do you think it is important to use Action Learning to teach students in Nigeria of today?
Baale: The Nigeria of yesteryears was based on the concept of theory. I also went to school learning a lot of theories. But over a period of time, it is clear that the apprentice system, as young kids, some of our classmates in primary school went to become tailors or barbers. How did they achieve that? Basically what they did was that they went to those places to learn by becoming an apprentice to somebody who is a professional. That activity itself helped them in building their skills so they can hardly forget what they’ve learnt.
Action Learning is more like an apprenticeship. The Action Learning is saying it is not enough to learn the theory, you must put it into action. So we are saying study an existing professional who is doing this already. Learn the principles and then go back to work and practicalise, then come back to learn another day. It is a process of learning, taking action, learning again, and taking action. So you’re learning from your success and you’re learning from your failure. As learning is taking place, you’re adjusting your strategies or amending some of the tactics so that at the end of the day, you will be able to get something that fits well for your organization. The same strategy may not work for different organisations even in the same industry. It will depend on whether that particular company is in the leadership room or maybe simply followership room. The action learning terminology has been a major point that has been very helpful.
Documentation in literature appears to suggest that action learning emanated from maybe Europe and the rest of them in reality, history has it that the principle of action learning has always been in existence about 2500 years ago. When the likes of Confucius, the Chinese philosopher actually said “What I hear, I easily forget. What I hear and see, I begin to remember. What I hear, see, and do, I begin to understand.” As you engage more senses of the body, the sense of sight, hearing, the sense of taste, the sense of aroma, the sense of touch, learning, and retention increases. What we’ve done is to put a curriculum in place from the beginning that ensures that we are challenging all these senses of the students in the learning process. We want them to see us, we want them to hear us, we want them to touch, we want them to be able to practicalise and experiment ideas. Based on this, the learning process is evolving.
In addition, we would rather take somebody who has had 30 years working experience working for a multinational or a big organization and who loves academics to turn around and become a teacher or a professor in the school, than a professor who had 40 years’ experience as a professor and has never practicalised any of the things that he is teaching. The learning that takes place from somebody who has years of practical experience is significantly better than the learning that takes place from somebody who is purely a theorist. Our faculties have therefore been carefully selected. Our faculties have also been well tutored on the issue of action learning so that they understand that students are encouraged to ask questions, students are encouraged not just to ask questions in class, they are encouraged to also ask questions at work, so as to get to the root cause of problems. What appears to be a problem generally may not be the real problem, it may just be the symptoms of an underlining problem.
Action learning teaches us critical thinking. It teaches us how to see opportunities in problems and how to rectify the problem itself. Rather than say “lack of money will not allow me to do this,” in trying to solve that problem, it will lead to structural conflict. We tell the students how to say “with money, I should be able to do this.” It is a mind shift, and that mindset shift helps in providing solutions because what you now want is to get funding to get that thing done. Rather than say “poor sales is responsible for the state of my company’s poor performance,” we ask you to say “with increasing sales, or how can we increase sales?” that changes the direction and those are salient things but they are very critical.
Action learning is something that happens almost day to day, mothers teach their kids as mentors and kids are mentees to their parents. They watch their parents do some things and they do the same things. That is what we are trying to do. We help them to be able to see the reality of what is meant to be done and we ask them to therefore learn the principle and learn how to practically implement them. That means before they finish in the school, they are already making impacts in their places of work.
PT: What sort of feedback do you get from the students when they get here and everything is practical?
Baale: The most fulfilling aspect of my job, and I say it with all sense of sincerity, is the students’ feedbacks. “You have transformed my life,” “you have transformed the organisation I work for courtesy of the methodology within which my mind has been opened,” and I’ll see that there are opportunities in challenges, there are opportunities in obstacles, they are stepping stones, some situations can give you stumbling blocks but it becomes stepping stones. It is the mindset and when you are subjected to that mindset shift and thought process for two to four years, it changes the way you see life. Students’ testimonials have been one of the most fulfilling things in terms of how it has helped to boost their businesses, to transform their businesses, to rate sales, to solve HR issues, to solve operational issues, to solve marketing problems, to address issues related to financial management and things like that; just by merely asking relevant questions from the real practitioners at work. So for me, the fulfilling part is the feedback that the students send. We are not set up just to award degrees, we are set up to transform lives, we are set up even to transform the world and we just happen to be in Arica where action learning is very critical to transforming situations in Africa from what it used to be to new ones. The educational paradigm has been based mainly on theory, that is why you see a mechanical engineer or an auto mechanical engineer who might not be able to even service his car but here it is not possible. By the time you finish your programme, you are able to do practically everything that you’ve learnt. We identify the gap in the current system and our desire is to influence the ministry of education to introduce the action learning methodology for the educational system right from elementary school, all through to the Ph.D. level. That is the best way. It doesn’t remove the academic aspect but it increases the practical aspect.
PT: How do you prepare your students for the ‘Nigerian factor?’
Baale: Every time people speak about the ‘Nigerian factor,’ it is interesting. Because Nigerian factors have been associated with a lot of negative things. People have forgotten that this country is filled with a lot of opportunities. What I get the students to understand is the fact that there are unique opportunities in the country. Tell me one thing that is not working in Nigeria and I will tell you greater opportunities. There is no good electricity in Nigeria, a very good opportunity for energy generation, invest in energy generation and you become a billionaire. If you help the government with energy transmission you become a billionaire, if you help the energy sector with the solution, you become a billionaire. The educational sector is in shambles that means you could set up a good school that teaches quality education. A large number of parents will take their kids there, either in elementary, primary, secondary, at A-levels, and at university. That is why private universities are thriving. Everything that we see as problems and challenges, they come along with great opportunities and challenges. When you take your eyes off the opportunities, the only thing you see are the challenges. And the media has not helped. The media has laid a lot of emphasis on the concept of things that are not working in Nigeria. A lot of things are working in Nigeria and are working beautifully. We need to orient our people to see the good side. Of course, we can’t find a utopic human being and a human being that is perfect in all cases. Let’s make use of what we have, build upon them, and improve them. You will never find a perfect country.
PT: BSN has been operating in Nigeria since 2003. Talk to us about some of the lows and highs since you started.
Baale: Like any other new organisation, when we started in 2003, we had some challenges of funding, challenges of acceptance by the general public. We started in Ota and it wasn’t easy. We were recruiting an average of 20 students per year. Five years after we started, we had less than a hundred students in school and we had just one graduate. From 2003 to 2005, we had just one graduate and less than a hundred students, I think about 98. From 2009, we started to look for an agile transformation approach and strategy. We started the journey to gaining a second, at the organisation, the opportunities that abound in our country. We started shifting some of the lectures from Ota to Ikeja. We were using hotels and eventually, we got a place in GRA. As soon as we got a place in GRA, students now saw reality and the number started to increase. Today, from a low figure of less than a hundred students in 2008, between then and now, we have recruited about 1,600 students in the last 12 years compared to the first five years. The high side was when we recruited 200 students in a year. For us, that is a very great feat. Currently, we graduate an average of about a hundred students every year.
Some of the challenges we used to have, we are overcoming them gradually. When it comes to funding and when it comes to the site. It was such a huge hurdle when it took like 4 to 6 hours for people that are coming from Lekki to get to Ota. Now they don’t have problems getting to this place and now that COVID has come, they don’t even need to come to this place. They only need to sit in the comforts of their offices or their homes and we talk to them.
We also had some challenges in terms of getting high-quality personnel. Initially, we had a higher turnover, people were not comfortable with selling post-graduate courses because the federal universities don’t sell. They just advertise and people apply. We had to market it, we had to communicate and it wasn’t easy because of the cost. The fee is significantly higher than the traditional universities that people are used to. That was part of the challenge.
Gradually, people are recognizing the fact that if there is anything they need to invest in, it is the best education. Education opens the mind, it changes the way we see things, and as the mindset gets really open, opportunities are created right from the mind and as we pursue those dreams, they eventually become reality.
PT: Is there a sort of competition among you and Business School Netherlands in other African countries?
Baale: The biggest competition is to compete against yourself. We tell our students-try to compete against yourselves, set rules that beat your own imagination that beat your own original achievements. Because when you compare to other people and you think that you are number one, maybe there is a significant opportunity ahead of you and you did not know.
We are about the 16th BSN location in the world but through the grace of the creator, we are about the second biggest location today. There are 16 locations in the world. We cannot say that we compete, we can say that we provide the number of leadership in terms of inspiring a number of other locations in terms of what we do here. We are a leader when it comes to positioning, we are a leader when it comes to the way the school have been marketed here in Nigeria and we are highly respected by the other countries.
It is manned significantly by Nigerians, so when we talk about Nigerian factors, this is part of the good Nigerian factors that we should really be talking about, not just 419 and the rest of them and corruption and things like that. There are good things coming from Nigeria; Akinwunmi is from Nigeria, we have a professor of Law, a young lady who is a Nigerian in Harvard University; so many like that. These are the things the media should put on the front page, not the negative part. Bad news is not good news because the generations who are coming are some supposed to pick some things and along the line if the only thing they read is bad, we start to influence their mindset not to see anything good in Nigeria.
That is why some people will graduate in Nigeria, rather than work in offices for the course of which they have been trained, they leave and go overseas to go and become security men and become other things that they wouldn’t have been if they were to stay in this country. There are opportunities.
Good news also sells. I recollect, over a decade ago, a family in Edo state, they have kids who passed A-levels at very young ages of 8-9-12, and some were already in the university reading Mathematics. The family is highly talented in Mathematics in the UK. There was the news that some very young person at about the age of 10 has passed his A-levels in Mathematics was front news for the Guardian in the UK, The Sun, and all the major newspapers including the Metropolitan and things like that. I got to the country and in Nigeria, it was not on the front page. I think it was one of the newspapers that just carried it on Sunday as part of the children’s pages. The rest of the world does not know many good things that are happening in our country but when they are placed on the front page, that is what helps in repositioning the country, in understanding that this nation is also blessed. Look at people who are here in Nigeria, who appear not to achieve much, they step out of Nigeria and they are leading. Nothing has changed in their genes. What has changed is their immediate environments. If we keep on saying negative things to people and over a period of time, they will absorb and assume that those negative things are integral parts of their DNA, which is not true.
What we need to do is to try to change the perception, try to put very good news in the front pages, and non-Nigerians and Nigerians who read them will begin to think about the Nigerian factor from a positive perspective. Nigerian factor actually means positivity, zeal, and passion. Whatever we do, we do well. Football is not indigenous to Nigeria, look at the way we are succeeding in football. We were thought how to play football. We are so passionate about football that we can now teach other people how to play football. We were taught how to be boxers, look at what Joshua is doing. That is Nigeria, which is what we need to be celebrating not the negative.
Every society has a small, infinitesimal percentage of what is bad. You cannot measure Nigeria’s success or image by less than 21 percent of the population that are into fraud, scam, and things like that. There are sufficient news to carry about each of us in the newspaper. I am passionate about Nigeria. My first degree is from Nigeria, my second degree is in Nigeria, and the only thing I have is my professorial award that came from the Netherlands. I am very proud to be a Nigerian. I have gone to work in France as an expatriate and I recognize the ability of an average Nigerian to achieve. It will be nice for the media group for which you represent, to try to have a mindset shift, a paradigm shift of the mind. Today, the front pages of the physical papers are now filled with multiple news. It will be nice to have 70 per cent of that news on the front page to be positive. That is the way, otherwise, anybody reading the newspaper, who reads the front pages every day and are not from this country, the only things they will remember is the robbery and all. There are newborn babies every day, there are people having breakthroughs every day. That is the mindset we put on our students to look at the positive sides of the things happening around us.
PT: What is so special about Business School Netherlands? Why should I come here?
Baale: All business schools will like to impart knowledge on students, we also need to impact skills, and we need to impact a sense of purpose. Unfortunately, traditional schools impact knowledge, they emphasize theory upon theory, and they emphasize cramming. Action learning is not about you remembering what you were taught. It is about the application of what you were taught. It is, therefore, not about the almighty exams, passing the almighty exam, no. it is about thinking through what you have learnt and developing a project to identify how they can implement what they have learnt at their places of work. It is more about creating the future because one of the best ways to actually predict the future is to create it. We are teaching them how to create the future based on the ideals of what they have learnt.
Business School Netherlands is so different from that pragmatic approach because we are focusing on creating the future and we are helping every student to learn about leadership, to understand that leadership is influence. To learn about inspiration, that people who work around you, people above you, people at par with you, and people below you need to inspire you. We teach them how to strategize, how to transform their organization, how to make their organisation to be flexible, to be agile, to take advantage, in the midst of changes, to see opportunities in changes and take advantage of them and eventually remain resilient, in spite of the challenges.
A course we teach them, not just from the theoretical point of view, but also from a practical point of view, and ask them to now create a future they desire, either for a unit of the organisation like HR, like operations, like manufacturing and things like that, or for the totality of the business and business levels strategy or functional level strategy, then that helps them in shifting their focus significantly away from the theory into the practicality of what is done. As we shift their focus away, they go back, put a plan together to practicalise it, they go back to implement.
We have taught them not just to be a theorist but a pragmatist, to be an activist, or to be a reflector. Then, for them to learn theoretically, pragmatically plan for the future, then go back to work and implement what they have planned and they reflect on what they have planned and they are able to, therefore, say what I implemented is positive, it’s giving me success, how can I become more successful? So they are competing against themselves. What I have done has failed, what is responsible for the failure? Root cause analysis. What do I need to do to prevent this failure in the future? They are learning from both failures and successes.
That lifestyle change itself, the mindset shift that looks at the positive aspect of everything, has given them, not just the knowledge now, it has given them the zeal and has also given them the sense of operation. They can therefore redefine what they need to pursue in their career and their life and therefore have a fulfillment because they are now pursuing the thing that is more purposeful, that is bigger than themselves, and how to make impacts in the society. That is what makes a very big difference in Business School Netherlands.
I think getting students to share their testimonies is one of the most fulfilling things you can ever find. How an engineer was transformed into an HR specialist just by coming to this school in less than six months. He had not even completed his course when he moved away from engineering and moved to HR. How an institution that is supposed to be a religious organisation grew 300 percent within two to three years because they are applying the concept of agile organisational transformation into an NGO, a religious organisation. How people who worked in the government agency have been able to create transformation is part of the bureaucracy that exists in government. How businesses have grown significantly from a very small SME, to become mighty businesses that investors, private equity firms outside the country have now shown interest to invest in because they took their businesses as SME into focus as they were running this programme for two years. Those two years of focus on that SME, micro SME, made a big difference for private equity firms to be interested in investing millions of dollars into their business.
Those are the things that give me such great fulfilments. I believe that I am fulfilling my purpose on earth.
PT: What about affordability? You know they say quality education does not come cheap.
Baale: What is the cost of ignorance? We have highly subsidised the courses, our price here in Nigeria is about one-third of the price in the Netherlands thanks to the grants that the Netherlands government grants to Business School Netherlands; thanks to the founder of the school, Professor Dick Gerdzen, who has also provided Africans with specific discount; thanks to the board of the school in Nigeria, who has also provided additional investment in the school to provide further discount. So at the end of the day, students in Nigeria are currently paying one-third of the fee in the Netherlands.
The Nigerian board has still been able to say keep the prices which is part of major devaluation in the last few months which has led to the loss of about 25 per cent of our revenue and yet, they say no just keep the prices, that will be our own COVID palliative to the students. We are barely just trying to survive but the feeling that the contribution we are making to the society supersedes whatever gain that we could ever have in terms of money. We didn’t set up the school like philanthropy but we didn’t set it up with the primary objective to make profit. It’s for the aim of transforming leadership in the whole of Africa.
I feel that it is affordable, it is an average of about 9,000 Euro for the entire programme, which is about one-quarter of the price in Europe. Now with devaluation, it is 9000 Euro. It used to be more than that, it used to be 12,000 Euro and that is why I said it is about one-quarter of 36,000 Euro. At N100, 000 per month, in four years, you would have completed your fee. If you want to complete the course in two years, you will require N200, 000 per month and if you want to finish it in a year, you will require an average of N400, 000 per month. So it is flexible. You can complete it in a year, two years, three years, or in four years. And they pay in Naira not in Euro.
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