Learn to unlearn

Digital access as the driver for change

According to the Statista[1], Internet penetration in South Africa was 56.3% (approx. 29M mobile Internet), projected to grow to 62.3% by 2025, compared to across Africa at 39.3% and the world average of 58.8%[2]. Further, a World Development Report concluded in 2016 that “a 10-percentage point increase in fixed broadband penetration would increase GDP growth by 1.21% in developed economies and 1.38% in developing ones.”[3] This “organic” growth by established providers is before new players such as Elon Musk’s Starlink, whose aim is to put 42,000 satellites into orbit to provide free global internet.

Simultaneously, in April the Competition Commission reached an agreement with MTN to reduce its data prices. This coupled with the (hopefully) soon to be resolved white spaces and 5G rollout expected to reach 28 million in Sub Saharan Africa by 2025, will lead to further internet penetration and coverage for South Africans by utilising this unallocated spectrum.

Connectivity is more than just email, Netflix or watching cat videos. It forms the foundation (along with reliable electricity) for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). Personally, I am not a huge supporter of the naming conventions as they imply step changes in the way the technology is adopted. While slow at first, most technologies adopt at an exponential “S-curve” rate hence when the “revolutions” appear, it’s merely an indicator that critical mass has been achieved past the inflection point of the “S-curve” (or as Christensen would suggest, now into the “early majority”). That said, the Third Industrial Revolution that started in approximately 1969 was characterized by automated production and information systems, primarily electronics, telecommunications and computers. This implies, rather succinctly, that if you are still discussing digitisation as a key enabler for your business, you are still operating from a Second Industrial Mindset.

Assembly Line Education systems

As South Africa heads toward half a million COVID-19 cases, public schools were closed for a month from 1 August 2020, creating additional turbulence for parents who have been forced to become teachers overnight – contrast that with the approximate 73% of students in China that are studying online during the pandemic [4]. While universities were quick to agree with telecoms providers’ “zero-rate” education websites and content, the means for delivery was a foreign concept. For the almost one million university students at the 26 public universities (and 700 000 at TVET colleges), the shift to digital learning was prohibitive.

Also, this doesn’t address the underlying problem: that many students are being trained for a world that is exponentially changing where their education may not be wholly fit for purpose. Most of our education systems were built for an assembly line mindset, where the aim was to produce good “workers” and not “thinkers.” The most highly rewarded were those most skilled with following instructions and being able to recite methods without fully considering the means through higher grades. Further “top down” delivery leaves extraordinarily little space or time to debate or disagree further encouraging following instruction. This is then enhanced through personal achievement versus teamwork, a reality that is apparent in corporate life where delivery is highly dependent on a group. This teamwork approach requires a higher degree of “humanness” that isn’t directly taught in our educational systems.

Even the timings are based off “blocks of students” that need to rotate to different locations at predetermined times with interspersed breaks – very much based off the workday of a production line worker. Finally, the accepted belief is that most of our formal “education” is completed in the first 20/25 years of our lives – an absurd construct when our lifespan could be over 100 years.

In some of my consultations with education institutions; perhaps the biggest challenge is the framing of this constrained mental model of fixed education models versus one that flows, adapts and intertwines with you as you age, learn and grow. A simple shift from “education” to “learning” pushes the mental models and narratives. Unfortunately, we tend to still equate reciting information to knowledge and learning.

The dilemma is best summed up by the World Economic Forum (WEF) white paper , Realizing potential in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which states that “65 per cent of children entering primary school today will have jobs that do not yet exist and for which their education will not be able to prepare them.”

Fourth Industrial Revolution: Hype or happening?

Beyond the challenges facing our education systems, work is facing a cataclysmic moment. COVID-19 has forced many employees and employers to face the realities of a changing workforce. Coupled with a narrative of the 4IR that has become a “catch all” phrase for anything that encompasses technology.

The commonly accepted definition for 4IR refers to the “blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres” and is attributed to Charles Schwab, founder of the WEF in 2016. This narrow definition focuses on technology (“what” e.g. Artificial Intelligence) but misses new business models (“how” e.g. platforms) and the shifting nature of collective value changes (“why” e.g. alternatives to capitalism). Consequently, various reports estimate that work today will be fundamentally shifted with estimates from McKinsey stating that one-fifth of the global workforce will be affected by Artificial Intelligence (AI) and automation[5]. However, Microsoft’s estimates suggest an additional 149 million new technology jobs over the next five years; not dissimilar to WEF’s estimates of 133 million.

Already AI has notched up some important achievements: beating the world’s best Go player, determining cancer better than doctors, even creating new works of art or music albums. Additionally, automation has made many blue-collar workers redundant at platform businesses such as Amazon, challenging traditional retail. Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google and Microsoft, collectively known as the FAANGM, represent a combined market capitalisation of over $4 trillion – bigger than the GDP of all countries except the United States and Japan.

Skills for tomorrow’s workforce

In his book, AI Superpowers, Kai-Fu Lee explains that jobs that don’t require compassion and can be highly automated are most at risk of being replaced by AI. Approximately 80% of South Africa’s workforce (semi-skilled and low-skilled) would likely fall into this category[6]. This and the cataclysmic job losses predicted as 4IR technology becomes more mainstream, leads many to consider what the skills needed to future-proof themselves are.

While there is no absolute answer on what is required, I can say with certainty that if you are doing work that is fairly rote, even specialised, your job will be automated. This however is the wrong focus, as it’s not what jobs will be replaced, but rather what tasks will be automated, by technology. This shift in paradigm allows examination of our work and where we can offset to technology, so we can focus on those tasks that machines are unable or don’t have the dexterity to do (Moravec’s paradox).

I believe a shift away from STEM only education, complemented with the humanities – specifically those areas that machines are (not yet) able to do – is needed. At least until we mainstream Artificial General Intelligence. This isn’t to say that we should eradicate STEM (full disclosure, I have dual master’s degree including Engineering and doing my doctorate) but rather we need to supplement that with what I have termed HEECCI: Humanness, Ethics, Entrepreneurship, Compassion, Creativity and Imagination.

  • Humanness is what makes us quintessentially human; the connections we make, the emotions we feel for something we have not experienced firsthand. This also extends to knowing our biases and pushing against them, forcing us into automated responses.

  • Ethics will be a defining area of new skills guiding our role as we interface with technology, but also as we drive headfirst into the unknown. We only need to consider the challenges of “Big Tech” and #Fakenews to understand the dearth of ethics.

  • Entrepreneurship, or rather entrepreneurial mindset, is the ability to think through holistic solutions, anticipate the unintended consequences, and create inclusive solutions.

  • Compassion, like humaneness, defines and must guide our interaction with one another. Consider the problems globally and how much easier we could solve them with even just a sprinkle of more compassion, inspiring others to act correspondingly.

  • Creativity to see beyond the data and facts , and find new solutions.

  • Imagination to dream the impossible and act on it.

Beyond new skills, a question of how to work

In April this year, an economist from the University of Chicago and a separate team from Norway tried to determine the percentage of jobs that could be done from home. Independently they both came up with a result close to 37%. This number is likely to be substantially lower in South Africa with only 20% of the workforce being classified as highly skilled (managers, professionals, finance workers, etc.). Moreover, working from home requires you to have the virtual tools and connectivity, approximately half of the population in South Africa, as mentioned earlier

For that minority, a new paradigm of online meetings, virtual gatherings and remote management is an additional layer of complexity in times of difficulty. Though COVID-19 has accelerated this shift, this move to a “new way of work” has been a coming wave for many years. Some companies expect virtual work to be the same as in person, sans the office. However, expecting your workforce to adopt the same process and schedule, and to lay upon them the same expectations is unrealistic with complications of load shedding, children, pets and Hadeda’s (you cannot hear anything with them calling in the background!). The challenges of changing your workflow and process while simultaneously meeting regular requirements cause extra stress for many. This level of personal stress is similar to companies attempting to implement new ways of work without addressing challenges that overlap their workflows.

As a partner at Futureworld, we’ve been helping organisations create their workforce of tomorrow. The challenges of speed and customer-centricity are not areas historically addressed by “industrial age” mindsets. Through implementing techniques gleaned through Design Thinking, breaking down silos, redesigning their process and implementing a startup, growth mindset, we've seen exponential gains.

Change, as we know, is hard – but an absolute necessity and while companies may struggle at first to implement a new approach, the results are truly transformative. At Vatglobal, an organisation operating across multiples continents, adopted some of our process and the CEO, Kiki Spyropoulos, was astounded at the impact on their business: “The process has been phenomenal and provided enormous value. Thank goodness we started implementing this ahead of COVID19."

Even the most process-driven and regulated organisations can identify “blind spots” in processes and embrace a new approach. We engaged the South African Reserve Bank to assist in identifying how to implement a new approach, as well as future opportunities. Our process and methodology were key to breaking down organisational barriers. According to Alex Smith, Lead Macroprudential Economist, this approach “exceeded expectations in terms of what was achieved in both output and engagement”.

Beyond designing the practices, a deliberate focus on culture with explicit emphasis on a vision that inspires are key to being successful both now and in the future. Microsoft is an example of a company that emphasised a growth mindset starting with the individual that has seen them rise to, at one point, the most valuable company on the planet. Those that are truly successful focus on maximising their “humanness” quotient to address real problems and redesign their processes from their customers' perspectives first.

Private sector stepping into the gap

The COVID crisis has unfortunately shown the inability of the state to provide for its citizens. From the “missing” R500 billion to failing infrastructure, the ruling party has dismally failed the last 26 years in preparing her citizens for an unknown future. It’s lunacy to expect government to enforce social distancing and embed digital learning when we are still dealing with the inability to solve latrine toilets. As such the private sector has the responsibility to work alongside government to prepare the next generation of workers to be fully equipped with this changing world.

Realising the need to build a private-public bridge, the WEF launched the Reskilling Revolution Platform to build better jobs, education, and skills with the audacious goal to reach one billion people by 2030. This “moonshot” is what is required for a working world that has not kept up with the relentless gains brought on by technology. They estimate that by 2020, employees will need an extra 101 days of additional learning to prepare for the future requirements of their roles. To boot, $11.5 Trillion could be added to the world economy by 2028 if we equip the workforce to leverage the opportunities of the 4IR.

A month ago, Microsoft launched an initiative to upskill 25 million people worldwide to close the gap between the jobs posted on LinkedIn and the skills required for them. Using the power of their platform (one of the elements of 4IR), and the data and insights, they have crafted a solution desperately needed both in South Africa and internationally. Beyond just matching the skills with the highest incidence of job listings now and in the future (software developers, cloud and data roles, data analytics, machine learning and AI), they have also curated dedicated learning paths beyond the hard skills required for the roles. South Africa is one of a handful of countries on the initial rollout path.

Thankfully, Microsoft realizes the importance of partnering and is actively seeking out ways to engage and work with government across all levels to ensure access for those that need these digital skills. One of these partnerships is through Afrika Tikkun to bring the program to the 30% unemployed without the resources to participate in and access this opportunity.

One of the four LinkedIn learning paths, Diversity, Inclusion, Belonging for All, covers crucial areas such as confronting biases, inclusive conversations, and communicating across cultures – all elements of the new skills mentioned above under “Humanness.” Another relating to New Ways of Work is Virtual Collaboration Tools.

Being one of the FAANGM, it is reassuring to see that Microsoft is actively investing in communities and the underserved. No doubt, this is part of the philosophy of their CEO, Satya Nadella, who emphasised a growth mindset that is now moving beyond the walls of Microsoft, to all who use their products and assets.

Microsoft isn’t the only corporate taking up the mantle to service the vacuum in the public sector. Dell Technologies South Africa, realising one of the underlying dependencies for this new world is digitisation, launched two additional Solar Learning Labs (15 in total in South Africa with an aim of launching 100 globally by 2030). Each is a refurbished container fully-equipped with computers and connectivity, and located in underserved areas for students to leverage the wave of digitisation.

Likewise, over the last 21 years Cisco’s Networking Academy has invested in developing over 980 000 (32% female) students in Africa to equip them with IT skills for roles in networking and cybersecurity. Just last year alone in South Africa Cisco’s Networking academy has trained 21,425 students; 33% of which were women and globally, over 12 million since its inception.

While COVID-19 is not the black swan that many have claimed, it has significantly accelerated the requirements to shift to a more digital world. There are many things we don’t yet know; many things where we don’t have full answers, but one thing is for sure: the skills that got us to where we are today, will not get us to where we need to be tomorrow. Only by leveraging technology, using it to augment our humanness and solution for tomorrow, can we properly be prepared for a world where decades are only weeks long.

If you'd like to find out more about Futureworld and the work we've been doing (for over 30 years) in helping clients understand, design and create their ideal business future, contact [email protected]


[1] Statista, https://www.statista.com/statistics/484933/internet-user-reach-south-africa/, last accessed: 28 June 2020 [2] Internet World Stats, https://www.internetworldstats.com/stats1.htm, Miniwatts Marketing Group, March 2020, last accessed 28 June 2020 [3] Mings., M. Exploring the Relationship between Broadband and Economic Growth, Digital Dividends. World Development Report 2016, Jan 2015. [4] CGTN, Over 70% of Chinese students study online via smartphones amid pandemic: Survey. CGTN, last accessed 28 July 2020 [5] Jobs lost, jobs gained: workforce transitions in a time of automation, McKinsey Global Institute, December 2017. [6] Employment, unemployment, skills and economic growth, Statistics South Africa, 2014