Future-fit businesses, leaders and workforces

The fourth industrial revolution has the potential to disrupt every industry in every country, says UCT-GSB's Rayner Canning.

Rayner Canning, Business Development Director at The University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business (UCT-GSB), which has partnered with CFO South Africa for this year’s Finance Indaba, shares his thoughts on changing trends in learning and education, the future evolution of this landscape, and the potential that the fourth industrial revolution has to disrupt business.

“As a top school with more than five decades of experience in the emerging market, the GSB has a responsibility to engage with its socio-political and economic context,” says Canning. “Its teaching, learning and research is directed towards building a more economically prosperous, more equitable, and more integrated continent.” The school is constantly investing in quality scholarship and strong partnerships to support these aims through initiatives like the Allan Gray Centre for Values-Based Leadership, the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship, the Raymond Ackerman Academy of Entrepreneurial Development, Development Finance Centre, and the MTN Solution Space, he says.

Asked how the UCT-GSB keeps current with changing trends in learning and education, Canning says the school has led change in African business for more than five decades. “Business schools traditionally have a more ‘real world’ than ‘ivory tower’ approach, in the sense that their programmes combine academia and theory with practical, hands-on learning in the business world, and the GSB is a leading proponent of this,” he says.

“This approach is becoming more important as the next generation of business leaders face more complex challenges than previous generations. The rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and other technological innovations, for example, are disrupting traditional ways of working – faster than any previous period in history."

"Students need to be prepared for this disruption and at the same time be in touch with the reality of daily life in Africa and work towards solving societal problems. This means that in addition to having excellent administrative and business skills – traditional skills – they need to hone their self-awareness and resilience. They need to be willing to try new things and push innovative ideas while being role models in terms of transparency and corporate citizenship.”

With regards to how he sees the future of this landscape evolving, Canning says these days, many companies actively seek out managers who are more emotionally intelligent and self-aware. “Therefore, all of the GSB’s programmes focus on developing self-knowledge and self-mastery in our students through exploring how people communicate, how messages are interpreted and how this process can be improved upon. This is a basic starting point for resilience and success in the world of work today,” he says. “Our EMBA famously was one of the first in the country to introduce mindfulness practice (a form of stress reduction that uses mindfulness techniques including meditation and body awareness) as a core part of the curriculum and our delegates on this high-level programme will tell you that while some of them may have resisted it to start with – they are all immeasurably grateful for the impact it has had on their ability to self-regulate in high stress environments. 

Canning emphasises that the GSB-UCT aims to create leaders who are able to think big, who are entrepreneurial in mind and action and who are ethical. He says:

“Our graduates really understand from the inside out that what they do needs to be in the service of profit, but also always in the service of building a better world and improving the lives of ordinary people and the communities where they operate.”

Students at the GSB are thrown into “the deep end”, he continues: “We don’t expect them to just sit in the classroom and absorb theories about how to manage and lead – although there is plenty of that too. We get them out in the world where they have the opportunity to try out their new-found skills by working with real businesses. Our township satellite base in Philippi Village, established in 2017, offers GSB students a revolutionary way to engage with real-world challenges while also assisting in bridging geographic and economic divides. Working with local entrepreneurs helps our students to develop empathy and resilience and opens their eyes to wider perspectives – all of which are vital attributes for the modern leader, especially one operating in an emerging market. At Philippi Village, we get to practise what we preach. Working with discomfort, we believe, will be a crucial part of forging a new reality for business and society from the ground up. The vision is to increase the relevance and impact of the school by working with entrepreneurs in the community to co-create new solutions to African challenges.”

Canning says that while the university has been active in township communities for decades – with field sites, mobile health services and education programmes – it has not, until now, established a presence like the Philippi base, with the long-term purpose of getting all students and stakeholders to engage and interact beyond the traditional spaces of the university. “The opening of another satellite site in Sandton, Gauteng is part of the GSB’s wider strategy to be more tapped into African business,” he says. 

A key initiative at the GSB has been the launch of the Scholarship Programme. “Believing that institutions need to do everything they can to make their degrees more accessible to poorer students, we have made significant funding available for scholarships,” explains Canning. “As a top school located in a changing emerging market, we have a responsibility to ensure that we are training a diverse pool of future leaders who are equipped with the skills and attitudes to move this country and continent forward. It is not right that many talented students are excluded for want of having enough money to pay their fees.

Another significant trend in learning is the shift to online and blended learning options, notes Canning. “Here too, the GSB is working to bring blended learning and online-only offerings into our portfolio, but with the view to creating additional value rather than cannibalising our existing offerings,” he says. “As a post-experience business school, where all of our students have at least three years’ work experience, we value the knowledge that our students bring to the classroom and think that there is no substitute for face-to-face-learning. Feedback from delegates on our programmes has shown that for many, being together with fellow learners for a block of time is a real luxury; the intensive period of introspection facilitated by highly stimulating contact with some of the brightest minds across industries gives participants the opportunity to deeply explore concepts and to challenge these ideas both with facilitators and their fellow senior executives. And in a focused environment, challenges are less easily escaped. In short, there is no substitute for putting a group of smart, strong-willed people together in a room, where they can be closely supported as they thrash out solutions to their most pressing challenges.”

Canning believes that the fourth industrial revolution has the potential to disrupt every industry in every country through large-scale automation, adoption of emergent technologies, big data and artificial intelligence. There are many predictions and estimates on how this will affect labour markets, he says, though one thing is certain, the jobs we do, and the skills we need to perform them, will change, and rapidly so. He says:

“The challenge going forward is to ensure that workers have the skills they need to transition to different jobs. The fourth industrial revolution poses a risk to job security only in the sense that not managing this transition can lead to greater unemployment and social inequality. In approaching what lies ahead, organisations need to invest in developing the essential capabilities of their people. Business schools obviously play a key role here.”

To ensure the building of talent that is capable of mastering change, an investment in resilient leadership needs to be made, he continues. “Leadership skills are not tied to a particular job or industry. Solid leadership development provides the kind of transferable skills likely to be needed in the future.”

Business school programmes will also need to be flexible and adaptable for students’ and organisations’ needs, and blended learning will play a role here, he says. “We believe it is essential to form relevant partnerships to future-proof business and society. Businesses, governments and educational institutions need to work together to provide curricula that meet current and future needs. Educators supply industry with critical skills, and industry has a hand in shaping the talent pool and informing educational institutions of the changes they foresee and the skills they wish to develop.”

He believes that businesses which invest in long-term partnerships with educational institutions to develop skills and respond to changes in the environment will stand a better chance of building a workforce that is future-proof: suitably skilled, adaptable and ready for the challenges that we collectively face. “As the African proverb goes: If we want to go far, we need to go together,” he says.

Asked why they decided to partner with the Finance Indaba, Canning said: “As a leading business school in Africa we have partnered with CFO as another touch point for us to reach out to the C-suites of the corporate world and to showcase our transformative learning capabilities.”

About GSB-UCT
About GSB-UCT is internationally renowned as one of a handful of business schools in Africa with the prestigious triple-crown accreditation with endorsements from EQUIS (the European Foundation for Management Development), AACSB (The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business), and AMBA (The Association of MBAs). Its offering includes: the Master’s in Business Administration (MBA), MBA in Executive Management (EMBA), Master of Commerce in Development Finance, Master of Philosophy in Inclusive Innovation, a PhD Programme, and the Postgraduate Diploma in Management Practice (PGDip). The school’s internationally rated Executive Education unit additionally offers a number of interactive short courses and leadership development programmes, as well as customised programmes for corporations, government and civil society organisations.