Gordon Institute of Business dean Nicola Kleyn. Picture: RUSSELL ROBERTS
Gordon Institute of Business dean Nicola Kleyn. Picture: RUSSELL ROBERTS

Prof Nicola Kleyn calls it “just-in-time learning” — the growing demand for managers and executives to learn specific skills for immediate application rather than a broad range for long-term personal development.

Kleyn, dean of the University of Pretoria’s Gordon Institute of Business Science (Gibs), has seen plenty of changes in executive education and graduate programmes like MBAs since joining the fledgling school at launch in 2000. In the past few years, she’s been directly involved in responding to market demand, first as academic head, then deputy dean, then full dean from March 2015 when she succeeded Prof Nick Binedell.

Soon, though, it will be someone else’s responsibility. Kleyn has confirmed that she will not seek a renewal of her five-year dean contract when it expires in March 2020. She will stay on a few weeks for the school’s autumn graduation ceremony but will then return to what she describes as a “scholarly role” in the school faculty. Her teaching specialities are marketing, branding, customer focus and reputation management.

In a recent interview, Kleyn, along with Lerato Mahlasela, executive director of customised executive education programmes at Gibs, and open programmes head Nishan Pillay, said corporate and government clients wanted guidance and context in an increasingly complex business and political environment.

Artificial intelligence and digitalisation may be causing unease about the future of work, but companies aren’t looking too far ahead. “They’re not interested in star-gazing. They want relevancy now,” says Pillay. “They want thought leadership, multiple perspectives, different opinions.”

Mahlasela adds: “You’d be surprised at the number of companies that haven’t thought through how they will cope with technology and societal challenges. We obviously can’t teach a bank about banking, but we can offer a broader outside view and suggest how they should approach the future.”

That’s on a corporate, strategic level. When it comes to personal development, there is a shift towards “stackable” learning. Rather than a comprehensive education package comprising all the elements of management and leadership, clients want schools to teach individual elements to meet immediate needs.

Kleyn says: “Human resources will tell an employee: ‘We have identified you as talent but now you need negotiating skills in the next three weeks.’ We will be brought in to provide that. Other skills will be taught as and when needed. We pile the stacks on top of each other.”

Mahlasela says: “Companies used to like long learning journeys in which students learned a comprehensive range of skills at once. Now the trend is for specific topics, presented short, sharp and brief. I think it’s because most people have limited time for learning.”

Or could it be that in the modern online world of instant gratification, where most messages contain fewer than 200 characters, that some young people no longer have the necessary attention span to cope with extended, complex learning?

“Attention deficit?” says Kleyn. “It could be, though you’ll never get anyone to admit it.”