People skills: More ’human‘ abilities, such as a talent for collaboration, will be needed in the future workplace. Picture: 123RF / RAWPIXEL
People skills: More ’human‘ abilities, such as a talent for collaboration, will be needed in the future workplace. Picture: 123RF / RAWPIXEL

Since the 1800s there has been an evolution from agrarian economies to ones dominated by industry and machine manufacturing. Then they evolved into services economies and recently into knowledge-based economies.

Some are already talking about the next step in the evolution to the creative age and creative economies, where value is based on novel imaginative qualities. Ideas move from “what is” to “what if?”.

Each of these economies need different skills and knowledge. According to the World Economic Forum’s evaluation of international workplace requirements, “five years from now, over one-third of skills that are considered important in today’s workforce will have changed”.

In SA, 39% of core skills required across occupations will be wholly different by 2020 compared with what was required in 2015. Even worse, 41% of all work activities in SA are susceptible to automation.

SA’s largest obstacle to management adaptation and future workforce planning is an insufficient understanding of disruptive changes and a limited collaboration between the business and education sectors.

Knowledge economies require that countries review how they access and benefit from the high-level knowledge that shapes social change. Countries that are weak in tapping into knowledge economies are significantly more likely to be marginalised.

To avoid this, SA needs to improve its exposure to the job landscape of the future as well as its capacity to develop graduates who can thrive in the knowledge economy. Although SA has a somewhat higher capacity to adapt than other sub-Saharan African countries, it is exposed to the job disruptions of the fourth industrial revolution, according to the World Economic Forum.

SA’s largest obstacle to management adaptation and future workforce planning is an insufficient understanding of disruptive changes and a limited collaboration between the business and education sectors.

SA requires urgent reskilling and upskilling efforts that boost the capacity to positively contribute to emerging knowledge and creative economies. Programmes that aim to develop new skills in order to strengthen higher education and adult learning are essential. This is particularly important when higher education institutions are training students for jobs that might not yet exist, might have changed or might have become redundant by graduation.

Soft skills have become increasingly important in the knowledge and creative economies. High-paying jobs increasingly require social skills, while poor soft skills are often the biggest issue for recruiters and the reason why many graduates are not offered positions. Increasingly the skills needed for this type of change are essentially “human”: emotional intelligence, creativity, critical thinking and cognitive flexibility.

In the knowledge and creative economies, which are intrinsically linked with the fourth industrial revolution, there is a strong focus on new methods of knowledge production that has several characteristics: it is generated within the environment of application; it is transdisciplinary; and it draws on hard and soft skills as well as the lived experiences of those involved.

There is an increase in where, how and who produces knowledge through organisations such as think-tanks, incubators and “living labs” that include civil society and broader public participation. It is highly reflexive and iterative, framing research & development (R&D) as essentially human-centred and as a “conversation”.

Disciplinary peers are no longer the only benchmark for the quality control of knowledge production. This has expanded to include other stakeholders and those affected by the output. Users of new products, services and systems are increasingly important, becoming “prosumers”.

Schools, universities and other higher-education institutions have a critical role to play in developing a resilient graduate cohort that can effectively collaborate across silos and is able to adapt and thrive in the rapidly evolving workplace. Such workplaces often have agility and innovation at their core.

Innovation-ready organisations have three core characteristics. They have individuals with creative confidence and competence; a workplace that creates conditions conducive to collaborative, creative thinking and doing, and in which innovation can scale beyond departments or divisions; and the ability to look outward, identifying and exploiting weak signals and wildcards such as latent customer needs, emerging trends and possible disruptions.

Design thinking nurtures creativity and critical thinking around complex challenges and offers students and participants an opportunity to develop core skills for the workplace of the fourth industrial revolution. It is both a methodology and a mindset, one that places the importance of understanding people’s unmet or unarticulated needs and aspirations at the core of design projects and business decisions.

It offers an innovative, human-centric problem-solving approach that is being successfully used as a cross-cutting, multidisciplinary methodology that transcends traditional university practices. Graduates are more competent to enter emerging economies.

In business, this human-centred design approach can find and drive strategic opportunities, both within the organisation and as a tool for new business development. Embracing and supporting a culture of design thinking and an entrepreneurial mindset can uncover new sources of ideas, develop these ideas and ultimately turn them into tangible innovations.

• Dr Futerman is a programme manager at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design Thinking at the Graduate School of Business, University of Cape Town.