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Leadership in the era disruption


Technology is improving and changing at breakneck speed, affecting how business is run, and at the same time prompting leaders to act fast and think critically, or risk being obsolete. Management guru Peter Drucker affirmed it when he said that this is the era of three C’s — change, complexity, competition.


Mining has transformed radically and makes it nonsensical not to use mechanised mining
Mining has transformed radically and makes it nonsensical not to use mechanised mining

As to unpack all that, I (JN) interviewed Jon Foster-Pedley (JF), former airline captain and current dean and director of Henley Business School, Africa, the African operation of Henley Business School UK, a world top 1% business school and part of the University of Reading, UK.

For 15 years prior to joining Henley, he was the faculty member for strategy and creativity, designer and director of the executive MBA and director of executive education at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business. Henley Business School has received the highest ranking of any business school operating in South Africa for their customised executive education programmes in the prestigious annual UK Financial Times (FT) Executive Education survey.

Foster has also been a visiting professor in creativity and innovation. In corporate life, he was an executive with British Aerospace and Airbus Industrie. He teaches, speaks, consults and advises numerous companies in Africa and internationally. I loved his acuteness on how leaders should learn to lead despite digital disruptions.

JN: What is digital disruption?

JF: Digital disruption is the way how digital technology changes the communication, human interaction and how business is done. It applies also to manufacturing processes; where we get one machine talking to another and them managing each other. It also works in terms of disintermediation, where we don’t need a travel agent anymore. You go on-line and book an air ticket or a taxi through Uber. It changes the nature of a number of industries such as publishing. It changes the way we talk. It changes the value proposition of businesses, enabling work to be done in an automated way.

Now we have what has been called automation, robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) which solves and computes some intricate human problems. One publication by the World Economic Forum (WEF) pointed out that technology is rapidly changing the workplace and the skills needed, which is in a sense making some people less or unemployable.

Technology changes things radically as it allows people to communicate in-depth and immediately compared to how they were able to before. It gets around censorship by the state in view of traditional media, circumvents corruption and helps create mass movements.

JN: It’s estimated that by the year 2020, over 700 million people will be connected through smartphones in Africa alone. As Africa, are we ready to empower people for the new jobs that will be created digital media?

JF: Well I think digital media has a lot of effects. On the one hand, you need new higher expertise to use this digital media well, especially around the psychology of it. On the other hand, people get socially detached from each because of technology. So, I think, it is not a matter of whether Africa is ready or not. I don’t think Africa can change this digital disruption tsunami. People now have cellphones, LinkedIn, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and many ways of communicating with each other rapidly. The question is whether technology can and is being used for development or not?

When you are talking about the ‘Internet of Things’ such mechanisation and robotics, it’s affecting the processes and the speed of business. Mining, for example, has transformed radically and makes it nonsensical not to use mechanised mining. You can’t stop that. The government may try to stop it, but the trouble is that in behaving in such a way and trying to hold the tide of digital disruption and globalisation, is that before long, the country will slide into uncompetitiveness.

You can’t hold the waters back just by saying I don’t like the inconvenience of power structures changing. Before long, other countries will be better connected, have better access to information and create better business growth processes. And countries that are not using that face the risk of sliding into oblivion and irrelevance. This is because they are not building the skills to be competitive and this will result in a population of people who are under-educated and not geared for the global and changing job market. What also happens is that you will find other people; especially young people who are embracing change will be using digital media in a creatively and disruptive way in business and changing how things are being done. So digital media is something that we should handle cleverly.

Africa is ready for digital disruption. This is because we are already in it. But it will not be at the same rate as we are seeing it in China or the United States. You will see people in Africa using digital media for access to information, the climate, farming, and market prices. Farmers have access to much better information such as how to use fertilisers. So what you are getting is the capacity to use technology to raise people’s living standards, learn new skills and create more but different job opportunities. The trouble is that lot of people the benefits.

JN: Let’s re-imagine business in Africa; how do we re-define our companies and create competitiveness while at the same time bringing value to customers? What should leaders be doing to catch up with global trends, especially in business? How would you advise African leaders, especially political and business leaders, about digital disruption?

JF: I would say: “Make reality your friend”. With African leaders, it is a very complicated situation because of the complex levels of different education access, degrees of poverty vis a vis very basic issues such as health, housing insurance. We have to create a society or country that is going to make information a priority. To continue, you must educate people. Something must be done about improving people’s skills around the subject of digital disruption. There are more than just basic skills such as basic labour, basic mining, and basic agriculture. We need to understand the effects of new communication methods, and how digital media can be used. One of the biggest challenges is that people have generalised information. Anyone can have general information, but companies need to understand that this can be destroyed by the disruptive revolution.

However, we should not fear this because, as soon people are fearful they become conservative. The solution is to educate people on how to use digital assets to build a developing country. We have to find ways to organise ourselves, use funding more effectively, waste money less, build assets, and save money by not importing things that can be substituted locally.

JN: How do schools in Africa, re-align or align their business syllabi to be relevant to the current and future trends?

JF: If leaders are to think long-term, they need to sow into education. This starts early in schools by giving children access to decent information and simple computers to do information projects. This is because the value of education in disruptive technology facilitates global interaction. You can now connect Italy, US, West Africa, or Europe into one classroom.

You can access information and data that is also cheap. This means that children need to have easier access in using this information. It will allow children to more easily understand marketing, accessing information on international markets, communicate with people, attracting investment, and develop new ideas. This will help young people learn and invent things. What digital technology allows you to do is to be accountable and take responsibility at an early age to develop their own ideas.

The problem is that we are not creating enough information that is relevant to our own countries. This makes it difficult to handle the demands of emerging trends and disruptive change. Digital disruption will result in a more sophisticated and global orientation towards politics and business management. For Africa, we have to find means of connecting with other people, whether it’s in China, the US or Europe, and learn lessons from them. Digital education creates more democratisation in a country and that is really good news because it allows your children and your children’s children to have better opportunities.

There are massive education opportunities available by going to the many online resources now available resulting in more ideas flowing in. The downside is that it can be more challenging to establish because of oligarchy in some countries, which still want to have a monopolistic control over digital resources. Economies that have embraced digital disruption such a Rwanda, are driving a number of initiatives that have increased the amount of available learning information, building employment, and empowering people not politically, but economically.

There are models that we need to look at. If we look at Taiwan and South Korea, these are strong political countries that have managed their economies in an excellent and democratic way. For you to educate people quicker, you the leader needs to be educated. What is needed is a good education system and critical thinking. On balance, digital disruption, like any tool, can be used for good or bad. What you can’t do is to stop this from happening.

JN: Some people have argued that we need transformative leadership. What’s your take on that as we align it to digital disruption?

JF: The first thing that is critically important in education is that once some people have learnt something new, it very hard to unlearn it. As soon as we learn something new, we should not allow it to prevent it from letting us see more new realities. Older people can be sceptical of this. But on the other hand, old people are critically important in mentoring and moulding new generations.

JN: What is the favourite final personal quote that you love?

JF: Be great for your children and children’s children.

Jonah Nyoni is an author, success coach and certified leadership/business trainer. He is the author of Inspiration for Success and Success Within Reach. Contact details-Tel: 0772 581 918. Email: jonah@classicmail.co.za. Twitter@jonahnyoni.

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