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Business agility: The transformational power of learning

“Education is an economic issue when nearly eight in 10 new jobs will require workforce training by the end of this decade……when we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that countries that out-educate us today will outcompete us tomorrow” (President Barack Obama).

“Education is an economic issue when nearly eight in 10 new jobs will require workforce training by the end of this decade……when we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that countries that out-educate us today will outcompete us tomorrow” (President Barack Obama).


So is your workforce ready for all the changes to come? ……Every industry today is subject to disruption, whether it is a large organisation or an SME. Customers have never had so much information or so many options, and gone are the days when shareholders wanted no more than predictable earnings growth.

Today, only 12% of the original Fortune 500 companies remain on the list! Encountering change is now ‘the new normal’, and in the next 1-2 years most organizations will not look as they do today. Even public sector organisations and NGOs are feeling the pressure to adapt.

Now more than ever in this disruptive environment, execution agility is needed at every level of the organisation. Agility is about internal readiness to change, and finding new ways of optimising the organization’s strengths to boost sales, productivity and bottom line (Nijssen and Paauwe 2010).

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Hence more and more businesses are engaging HR & OD (Organizational Development) specialists to equip their staff with the necessary skills to transform products, services, and customer interactions. This delivers greater value and helps to manage complexity.

Through a strong learning culture that aligns with business objectives, companies are better able to embrace an agile mindset to improve performance and competitiveness. In the banking sector for instance, the need to adapt to industry-wide disruption is apparent as they face constant and fast change. This includes the recent passage of the Banking Amendment Bill through the National Assembly to encourage banks to be more responsive to clients’ needs.

This industry is undergoing radical transformation: There are competitive threats from the informal sector, including the unregulated yet popular money lending ‘chimbadzo’; and from mobile money platforms such as Ecocash and Telecash.

Hence FBC Bank has also introduced a mobile phone application providing self-service technology to increase customer convenience and competitiveness. Similarly, the funeral sector is increasingly showing interest in and need to adapt to global trends and more personalised, value-added services including funeral videography, to provide customers what they really want.

This requires transformational leadership skills at a time of change and ambiguity, to innovate for a more sustainable and resilient organization, and ability to recognise emerging trends and patterns for better strategic choices (O’Donovan & Flower 2013).

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Just one of the many ways HR and OD specialists can help organizations to create the right conditions to boost business and economic growth, and with a focus on customers, quality and accountability.

Learning as a strategic lever to agility

Change in a business environment often leads to skill gaps. Despite the challenging climate, some Zimbabwean companies are experiencing rapid business growth and frequent change.

As they enter new markets and the workforce grows, the skills and systems that may have helped them during the early years are unlikely to do so now in a VUCA (Volatile, Unpredictable, Complex, Ambiguous) environment.

This may put their businesses at risk if managers are for example, not competent to make suitable hiring decisions and promotions, or manage complexity.

Furthermore, with increased globalization, new business models, and ways of working, there is an increased need for an agile workforce, and managers skilled in people analytics (Harvard Business Review 2015).

Research also shows that agile organisations are equipped to respond, and will grow revenue 37% faster and generate 30% higher profits (Forrester Research Inc, 2014).

The key to fostering this business agility and inculcating better change capacities at team and organization levels is continuous high-impact learning and development.

This should be accessible, targeted and strategically used; via diverse methods such as job rotation, coaching and mentoring, and formal training to accommodate a range of learning styles.

Indeed one of the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries (CZI) 2015 Congress resolutions was for businesses to invest in skills training and to adopt lean and efficient methods to drive competitiveness.

Organizations could also work collaboratively with external consultants to help unearth age- old problems and to give new perspectives.

This could be through for example, team-building, and helping to expand staff skills to generate new revenue; practical skills such as how to write a convincing business case, how to chair productive meetings, and how to attract and retain the best talent.

As well as developing good succession planning to ensure vital organizations such as the National Railways of Zimbabwe (NRZ) can fill critical posts in a timely way. This is following media reports in 2015 that the NRZ had been unable to recruit a permanent General Manager for 2 years due to talent gaps in and outside the organization.

Embracing the digital revolution and transformation

Technology and digital competition are changing the face of everyday business decisions, including ability to analyse and synthesise data from the Internet of Things (IoT); even giving current US presidential candidates political influence through digital engagement!

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According to Frost & Sullivan (global research consultants), over 50 billion devices will be connected to the IoT by 2020, with an economic impact forecast of $11 trillion by 2025. This, including tech’s next battleground – live streaming, will require a different set of skills to remain competitive.

Microsoft’s quick cloud analytics are also disrupting business models and workforce practices in Zimbabwe. As are e-government services such as Zimra e-filing to enhance access and customer convenience, and Econet’s IoT solutions to crime and health.

SMEs too such as Dindingwe’s vehicle and asset tracking service are offering people value through digital technology.

With the current focus globally on science and technology, it is however not just STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) skills that will increasingly be needed across a wide range of industries:

Even as Google’s self-driving vehicle looks to become a reality – invoking nostalgic memories of KITT the Knight Rider car with Artificial Intelligence (AI) – the latest AI robot from Google was surprisingly beaten in one tournament game recently by a human champion, and ‘was pressured into a mistake that it couldn’t recover from’!

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This suggests that even disruptive challenges and business models also require more innovative human approaches, reskilling staff and re-organizing job roles. Aside from the discussions about insurance, legal and security issues.

What’s more, most traditional businesses were established before Google and regulations set before the creation of smartphones.

Hence the outcry in many world cities against Uber’s taxi app, and the recent prediction by the World Economic Forum about the 10 critical skills that will be needed in the workforce in 2020. These include complex problem-solving and quality decision-making, negotiation skills, creativity and people management.

Furthermore, many technical experts are often catapulted into senior management roles and responsibilities without commercial skills such as customer service, cross-collaboration skills, and navigation skills for thriving in VUCA.

Yet, whilst the majority of businesses agree that staff training and development enhances performance, brand reputation and drives growth, most are discouraged due to time and cost pressures.

Indeed, despite many companies proclaiming that ‘employees are our most important asset’, many still view and manage employees as costs, and even established businesses are experiencing slashed training budgets.

More-so as the return on training investment is difficult to quantify, as is the value that could have been created by spending training time working on the job.

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How does an agile workforce benefit the business?

To boost productivity and profit, and remain competitive, companies should ponder the following:

• Is our Board competent and appropriately trained to understand the strategic impact of VUCA on the organization? • Is there management commitment to make continuous learning and skills development a part of our organizational culture? • Is our learning strategy enabling us to make effective use of emerging opportunities, and engage creatively with our customers? • Will our current workforce strategy enable us to become a scalable agile organization?

• Are we engaging our staff and leveraging our workforce to perform at their highest possible level for customer satisfaction? • Is our investment in technology accompanied by appropriate human skills training e.g. strategic thinking, reasoning and ability to build work relationships?

• Are staff competent to evaluate data using the metrics that are of most interest to our business stakeholders? • Is our leadership development and succession pipeline effective in meeting and managing the expectations of multiple stakeholders? • Is our workforce training effective and readily available for future-proofing organizational ability?

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The way forward

Agility and versatility are evermore needed as roles become increasingly multifaceted. The re-calibration of the workplace and changing design of work necessitates a blend of skills and organizational capabilities.

These should be designed around highly performing teams and a strong learning culture to manage complexity and drive change.

As the workforce develops and learns, the people become a source of innovation and long-term competitive strength as staff become better equipped to adapt.

Whilst there maybe a disconnect between the perceived need for training and the time and resources allocated to this intervention, organizations recognise the need to maximise the human resources they have for sustainability and bottom line.

To conclude, some final thoughts:

‘If you think education is expensive try ignorance’ – African proverb

Brenda Chiremba is an experienced HR and OD Consultant with IPP Learning, a Harare-based training and development consultancy. For assistance with HR/OD consultancy and training to transform your bottom line, contact Brenda or send comments to [email protected] or Whatsapp 0776 311268. Visit website at www.ipplearning.com