Managers will need a new mindset to lead in a technology-driven world

MZOXOLO GULWA - 7 March 2019

The 4th Industrial Revolution offers businesses new opportunities for growth and inclusivity - but it will be critical to invest in the essential capabilities of, especially, managers to cash in on this dividend.

South Africa is waking up to that the fact that it needs to invest in different skills if it wants to get its workforce ready for the new digital economy. There is growing concern among business, government and labour over how the 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR), also known as Industry 4.0, will impact South Africa and its people.

In his State of the Nation Address, President Cyril Ramaphosa warned that unless the 4IR is harnessed to serve South Africa’s developmental aspirations, the country is at risk of being usurped by technology.

At the heart of the issue is the question of jobs. While innovation in the fields of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) has the potential to substantially increase productivity and reduce inefficiencies, it also significantly reduces the need for human labour. In a country like South Africa, where unemployment already stands at 27.1%, the potential for job losses, brought about by the technology revolution, could have a devastating impact, especially on the youth. Accenture’s 2018 report on Creating South Africa’s Future Workforce says one in three jobs in SA is at risk, with close on 5.7-million jobs already at risk of automation. In 2018, American companies put more than 30 000 robots to work, a record number in a single year thus far and up 16% on the previous year, according to a study by the US-based Association for Advancing Automation.   

A new era of human-machine collaboration

AI has already gone mainstream, but it might not be all bad news. According to Accenture’s Reworking the Revolution report, AI could “usher in a new era of human-machine collaboration” where robots will be able to assist their human co-workers in completing tasks rather than simply replacing them through automation, and that this creates immense new opportunities for business.  

In fact, the report estimates that, properly harnessed, the AI revolution could boost business revenues by 38% on average in the next five years and generate higher levels of employment. But to achieve this, leaders must fundamentally reimagine the nature of work and be prepared to invest significantly in the re-skilling of their people.

A good manager can make or break an organisation

A particularly vital segment of most workplaces – and one that has significant implications for the managing of this brave new interface between people and machines – is management. A good manager can make or break an organisation and in technologically-advanced workplaces, this is likely to become more apposite than ever before. Making sure that managers, especially new managers, are set up to understand and navigate this world successfully will be key.

Becoming a manager for the first time can already be one of the most stressful steps someone will ever take in business. The new manager, who may have been promoted because they were good at a particular task, suddenly finds themselves with new responsibilities and new pressures both from above (their managers) and below (the people they now need to manage and lead). Often they are not equipped with the necessary skills to do this effectively.

These pressures are compounded by the fact that in the new hyper-connected and globalised workplace, managers are confronted with more diverse and technically skilled teams of people working together. In addition, many of their team members may, of course, be robots!

Managing these new kinds of teams will require a very different mindset to the existing mould of command and control that is still prevalent in South African companies. Instead, collaborative and cooperative approaches to leadership are more likely to succeed. Also critical, as the gig economy grows, will be manager’s ability to be innovative and creative and take risks.

Complex problem solving, critical thinking, creativity and emotional intelligence are key

Jamira Burley, Head of Youth Engagement and Skills for the Global Business Coalition for Education (GBCE) and a co-author of a 2018 report by Deloitte and the GBCE, points out that as humans increasingly work alongside robots, skills that are unique to humans such as complex problem solving, critical thinking, creativity and emotional intelligence will, at least in the foreseeable future, not be replaceable by machines and are therefore important to scale up.

In addition to making sure that they have the core business fundamentals such as strategy, finance and marketing in their toolbox, new managers will need to train to be more strategic, creative, fluid and flexible, according to the Accenture report.

It is a big ask and enormous change and challenges lie ahead. Government, Corporate South Africa, labour and educational institutions need to be working together to be preparing people – especially young people – for these changes. Each sector must have a strategy in place for embracing emerging technology and for up upskilling employees to work with these, as well as nurturing creativity and innovation.

A culture of lifelong learning

Critically, we will need to instil a culture of lifelong learning because this is what it’s going to take to keep on top of new developments. We also need to encourage people to adopt an attitude of curiosity rather than fear.

It has never been possible to see into the future, but it is possible to prepare ourselves. By investing in the essential human qualities of good leadership and management and looking for the positive applications of AI, technology does not have to be a threat but an opportunity for growth and inclusivity.

Mzoxolo Gulwa is the convenor of The New Manager Programme at the UCT Graduate School of Business which runs in June (in Johannesburg) and October (in Cape Town). For more information please email  

Managing people | Executive development

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