Leadership Letter 1

Future-proof Your Organization

Throughout the past few years, numerous terms have emerged in the popular business press and academic literature that refer to an increasing inability to grasp the world and deal with the things happening around us. Examples include uncertainty, turbulence, rapid change, dynamism, disruption, complexity, hyper-competition, high-velocity markets and flux. The term “VUCA” is now commonly used to embrace the dimensions of this ‘uncontrollable’ environment. VUCA is an acronym that stands for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous; and it reflects accurately the turbulence that the 4th Industrial Revolution has brought with it.

The 4th Industrial Revolution is a time in our history that has crept up on us very quickly. It didn’t come without warning, but the speed at which it has taken root in the workplace is astounding. For some leaders it is a scary thing, for others, those who have prepared for it, it is an exciting time. Yet there are those of us who are still blissfully unaware of the impact of 4IR on our businesses in SA, and a rude awakening is around the corner.

I want to use the eye-opening research of Accenture Consulting’s Paper called Creating South Africa’s Future Workforce as a platform to challenge our thinking around future job security and successful entrepreneurship.

Digital technology brings efficiencies, but it also brings disruption and radically new ways of engaging and doing business. For countries and organisations that are ready to embrace digital technology and have a workforce that is geared to ‘run with the machine’, digital has the potential to:

  • Uncover new value,
  • Create and redesign more jobs than those being lost and
  • Boost growth significantly.

However, for countries like South Africa that are less prepared, digital may bring more job losses than gains, which will negatively impact the socio-economic wellbeing of individuals and the economy. The commissioned research from Accenture indicates that 35 percent of all jobs in South Africa (almost 5.7 million jobs) are currently at risk of total automation. With a fragile economy and growing unemployment, especially youth unemployment, further job losses in South Africa could have a crippling effect.

The loss of jobs creates a huge problem. Machines do not consume things. Machines do not buy things. So, while machines can replace human work, they do not drive purchasing power and consumption or GDP as humans do. Humans work. Humans get paid. Humans spend. Humans consume. Society progresses. Humans don’t work. Don’t get paid, can’t spend or consume (much). Society regresses.

To rise to this challenge, South Africa will need to recalibrate its economy and its workforce for digital, developing an environment in which humans and machines work together to engage with customers, and create entirely new products, services and markets. This will drive demand and consumption within the economy, boosting growth.

A picture is emerging of the actions needed to shape and prepare the workforce along the entire talent value chain. Leaders need to:

• Review and adapt their leadership style.

• Accelerate reskilling people

• Pivot the workforce to areas that create new forms of value

• Strengthen the talent pipeline from its source

Alvin Toffler, author of Future Shock said, “The illiterate of the future will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.” 

Human beings have an amazing capacity to learn new skills and adapt to new environments. This is true not only in early life, but throughout our lives. As the nature of work evolves, employees and entrepreneurs will need to adapt their mix of skills and knowledge to embrace new challenges and stay relevant.

The Accenture research shows that if South Africa can double the pace at which its workforce acquires skills relevant for human-machine collaboration, it can reduce the number of jobs at risk from 20 percent (3.5 million jobs) in 2025 to just 14 percent (2.5 million jobs). But for such an intervention to be effective, we must start now.

As digital continues to dominate, South Africa’s ability to secure economic access for all its people—giving its workforce the skills to participate in the digital economy and earn—will determine its future trajectory.

Digital technologies will usher in a new economic era:

  • they overcome the physical limitations of capital and labour,
  • exposing new sources of value and growth,
  • increasing efficiency and
  • driving competitiveness.

Without these technologies, companies will lose market share and be left behind, and economies will stagnate.

The opportunity for South Africa is considerable. Accenture Research shows that one major digital technology, artificial intelligence (AI), has the potential to boost labour productivity in countries by up to 40 percent by 2035 as innovative technologies enable people to make better use of their time. By embedding AI and making it a factor of production, this research indicates that South Africa could potentially double the size of its economy five years earlier.

The good news: these actions will enable leaders to build a workforce that is highly engaged with digital and to reshape their organisations and society at large in a way that drives real business value—labour productivity, talent acquisition and retention, as well as innovation and creativity. To achieve this, leaders need to be responsive, responsible and response-abled.

The bad news: the clock is ticking. The time to act is now.

Please feel free to share your thoughts and insights with us about this fascinating topic. If you would want a consultation with us to explore how to lead in this VUCA environment, please email me at antony@zifundise.com

Best wishes


   * Antony Jennings is Managing Partner of Zifundise Training and Consulting, a people development company based in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.

Leave a comment