Picture: 123RF
Picture: 123RF

Shaun Vorster, head of business integration and activations at the six-month Expo 2020 Dubai, was named alumnus of the year last week by the University of Stellenbosch Business School (UBS). The award goes to an alumnus who has excelled as a responsible leader, whether in the private or public sector, or in an entrepreneurial venture.

This is an edited version of his speech last week at a Kgalema Motlanthe Foundation Leadership Lecture Series event hosted by UBS.

“The fourth industrial revolution (4IR) represents a tectonic shift in how we learn, work and live. It challenges the traditional route from learning to earning, from degrees to careers. As the scale and speed of change accelerates, it forces us into new ways of thinking, like training job creators instead of jobseekers, and how best to manage the relationship between unemployment, inequality and education.

“Reskilling and upskilling the workforce at scale, including young people for careers that do not yet exist, will be one of our biggest callings. Defining the scope of the jobs of the future is even harder.

“Among the many unknowns of the 4IR, one thing is for certain: required skills are changing. While machines or robots might replace physical labour in a predictable environment, or data processing, what will set you apart in the workplace of the future is the ability to problem-solve and be creative, identify the right problems, think globally, critically and entrepreneurially, and display emotional and cultural intelligence.

“Students able to engage in self-awareness and self-reflection are those who will prosper in tomorrow’s workplace and the society of the future. Whereas knowledge and skills can be built through directional education delivery, critical differentiators like values and attitudes require co-creation and human interaction.

“This means the demands on the education system are shifting. Some institutions are challenging tradition and have managed to unlock education for millions in the process. Content has become a commodity. So-called MOOCs [massive open online courses] mean everyone has instant access to content. Flexible teaching modes, alongside digitisation, create new opportunities for distance learning, blended learning, modular learning, affordable customisation, virtual reality simulation and — unnerving to some hard-core academics — the unbundling and rebundling of curricula. Students, corporate clients and lifelong learners appreciate less linear, more customised, ‘bite-size’ education. This is education tailor-made for the so-called Netflix generation who want to study what they want, when they want, transcending disciplinary, geographic and institutional boundaries.

“This brings new challenges. It throws up questions of governance and institutional identities; maintaining and recognising academic standards; valuing emotional intelligence as much as grades; assessing outputs and capabilities of both students and faculty; and integrating values and ethics.

“It also challenges the one-size-fits-all approach to accreditation, rankings and publication credits. In fact, it challenges centuries of dogma in tertiary education that have fossilised outdated conventions and confused institutional identities in universities.

“It also challenges us to rethink business education from every possible angle and respond to difficult questions. For example, is the MBA dead, and how do we educate business leaders of the future if we don’t know yet what skills they will need or the tasks they will be asked to fulfil?

“In addition, questions are resurfacing about accessibility and affordability. If new education technology initiatives are only hi-tech, they may perpetuate the digital divide, defeating the goal of creating opportunities for those previously excluded from the knowledge-based economy.

“New means of delivery could democratise business education in unthinkable ways and formats. Wherever you have a screen or audio channel, you could potentially have access to education. The challenge is not to produce content but to curate relevant content in a way that cuts through the overload and questionable quality of information across different channels and platforms.

“The future of work is changing at breakneck speed. The gap between the returns to capital and labour is widening, chipping away at social stability in many parts of the world.

“I can hardly think of any entity in the broader university environment better positioned to provide and nurture the thought leadership and skills we require than a business school. But it cannot be business as usual. We have to challenge current boundaries, conventions and identities. And we have to ask whether the pace of change in education is aggressive enough.

“Interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research and teaching is the bedrock of responsible leadership. Diverse groups make better decisions. Relevant research focused on real-world challenges makes for better solutions. Business schools have the flexibility to connect diverse minds — from engineers and scientists, to investors, philosophers and artists — and inspire the nitty-gritty research we need to build the knowledge, skills and values that the workplace of the future demands.

“The debate on how business schools rebundle relevant content is an important one. The opportunity for business education lies in the continued curation of learning across multiple and diverse disciplines, and across geographies, digital domains and networked institutions. It is about striking the right balance between fundamental business theory, experiential learning and leadership coaching, towards a greater sense of purpose.

“It is about how we manage to create the individual experience at mass, to meet the scale of demand. An important point when we talk about curation is the prerequisite for faculty that are not just teaching experts, but also creators of knowledge through research themselves.

“Taken together, all of the above demonstrates why a business school should never be pigeon-holed or boxed in. It should be agile and flexible enough to stay ahead of the market and anticipate disruption, and to be innovative in what and how it teaches.

“It should be free enough to engage with business and the public sector, including through consultancy and contract research; to shape the evolution of business and its place in society through integrated teaching and research; and to draw on university-wide faculty, alumni, business leaders and civil society.

“That will also better position it to address the corporate need for customised education. Corporate in-house training functions are not agile enough to align learning with the new skills required.

“In the 4IR, running a country, nonprofit or corporation with leaders schooled in yesterday’s models is like running an all-electric car on fossil fuel. Radical imagination and highly responsive environments are needed. We need to adapt and the best way to do so is through reverse learning, bringing business leaders into the classroom to impart knowledge, skills and values, placing faculty in the field, and creating a space in which business leaders can enhance their ability to argue critically and assess other viewpoints. Business schools as a radical laboratory of the future would be an ideal vehicle to achieve just that.

“A ‘radical laboratory of the future’ implies a responsive, supra-institutional form and an openness to accelerate its own (r)evolution, before the tectonic shift triggered by the 4IR renders it irrelevant and obsolete. To borrow from Joseph Schumpeter, it is about ‘creative destruction’ as we challenge the old and aggressively pursue change to unlock new energy and innovation.”