Business education and the Fourth Industrial Revolution

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Introducing a new chapter in human development, the Fourth Industrial Revolution represents a tectonic shift in how we learn, work and live. It challenges the traditional route from learning to earning, from degrees to careers. As the scale and speed of change accelerates, it forces us into new ways of thinking, considering how we could train job creators instead of mere job seekers, and how best to manage the relationship between unemployment, inequality and education. 

Reskilling and upskilling the workforce at scale, including young people for careers that do not yet exist, will be one of our biggest callings in the Economy 4.0.  Defining the scope of the jobs of the future is even harder; which is where research on economic and business behaviour in light of technological advances becomes key.

Amidst the many unknowns of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, one thing is for certain: The skill sets required are changing. While machines or robots might replace tasks such as physical labour in a predictable environment, or data processing, what will set you apart in the workplace of the future is the ability to problem-solve and be creative, identify the right problems, think globally, critically and entrepreneurially, and display emotional and cultural intelligence. 

Students equipped with the ability to engage in self-awareness and self-reflection are those who will prosper in tomorrow’s workplace and as responsible citizens in the society of the future.  Whereas knowledge and skills can be built through directional education delivery, the critical differentiators, namely values and attitudes, require co-creation and human interaction.

This means the demands on the education system are shifting, with implications not just for our curricula and the relevance of our research, but also for the way we learn. Some institutions are challenging tradition, and have managed to unlock education for millions in the process.  Content has become ubiquitous; a commodity. So-called MOOCs (massive open online courses) mean everyone has instant access to content. 

Flexible teaching modes along with digitisation create new opportunities for distance learning, blended learning, modular learning, affordable customisation, virtual reality simulation and – unnerving to some hard-core academics – the unbundling and rebundling of curricula. Students, corporate clients and lifelong learners appreciate less linear, more customised, “bite-size” education – education tailor-made for the so-called Netflix generation (both young and old), who want to study what they want, when they want, transcending disciplinary, geographic and institutional boundaries. Our methods of teaching, materials and content need to adjust to reflect the generational shift to Millennials and Gen Z – the students of the future.   

Naturally, this brings new challenges. It throws up questions of governance and institutional identities; maintaining and recognising academic standards; valuing emotional intelligence as much as grades; assessing outputs and capabilities of both students and faculty; integrating a focus on values and ethics. It also challenges the holy cow, namely the one-size-fits-all approach to accreditation, rankings and publication credits. 

In fact, it challenges centuries of dogma in tertiary education that have unfortunately fossilised outdated conventions and if I may say so, confused institutional identities in universities. It also challenges us to rethink business education from every possible angle and respond to difficult questions such as: ‘Is the MBA dead?’, ‘What space will business education of the future occupy?’, and “How do we educate the business leaders of the future if we do not yet know the skills they need and the tasks they will be asked to fulfil?” 

In addition, questions on accessibility and affordability tend to resurface. Should the new EdTech end up being only high-tech it may simply perpetuate the digital divide, defeating the goal of creating opportunities for those previously excluded from the knowledge-based economy.  New means of delivery could democratise business education in unthinkable ways and formats – with channels already ranging from inflight entertainment to YouTube, radio and mobile devices. Wherever you have a screen or audio channel you could potentially have access to education. The challenge is not to produce content, but to curate relevant content in a way that cuts through the over-load and questionable quality of information across different channels and platforms.

Programme Director, the future of work is changing at breakneck speed. The gap between the returns to capital and labour is widening, steadily chipping away at social stability in many parts of the world. On top of that, the existential debate about life and living within planetary boundaries rages on. Considering the complexity of the disruption – be that technology, big data, geopolitics, resource constraints or markets – I can hardly think of any entity in the broader university environment better positioned to provide and nurture the thought leadership and skills we require than a business school. But it cannot be business as usual. We have to challenge current boundaries, conventions and identities. And we have to ask whether the pace of change in education is aggressive enough.

Interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research and teaching is the bedrock of responsible leadership. Diverse groups make for better decisions. And relevant research focused on real-world challenges across all dimensions of sustainability makes for better solutions. Business schools have the flexibility to connect the diverse minds – from engineers and scientists, to investors, philosophers and artists – and inspire the nitty-gritty research we need to build the knowledge, skills and values that the workplace of the future demands.

The debate on how business schools rebundle relevant content is an important one. The opportunity for business education lies in the continued curation of learning across multiple and diverse disciplines, and across geographies, digital domains and networked institutions. It is about striking the right balance between fundamental business theory, experiential learning and leadership coaching, towards a greater sense of purpose. It is about how we manage to create the individual experience at mass – to meet the scale of demand. An important point when we talk about ‘curation’ is the prerequisite for faculty that are not just teaching experts, but also creators of knowledge through research themselves.

Taken together, all of the above demonstrates why a business school should never be pigeon-holed or boxed in – neither physically, nor as an academic discipline or an institutional form. A business school should be agile and flexible enough to stay ahead of the market and anticipate disruption, and to be innovative in what and how it teaches. It should be free enough to engage with business and the public sector, including through consultancy and contract research; to shape the evolution of business and its place in society through integrated teaching and research, and to draw on university-wide faculty, alumni, business leaders and civil society. 

That will also better position it to address the corporate need for customised education. Corporate in-house training functions are simply not agile enough to align learning with the new skills required by Workplace 4.0, and to do so at scale. This involves not only hard skills, which are increasingly becoming commodities, but also, and perhaps more so, the soft skills and leadership capabilities to cope with complexity.

In the Fourth Industrial Revolution, running a country, non-profit or corporation with leaders schooled in yesterday’s models is akin to running an all-electric car on fossil fuel. Radical imagination and highly responsive environments are needed.  We need to adapt, and the best way to do so is through reverse learning, bringing business leaders into the classroom to impart knowledge, skills and values, placing faculty in the field, and creating a space in which business leaders can enhance their ability to argue critically and assess other viewpoints.  Business schools as a radical laboratory of the future would be an ideal vehicle to achieve just that.

The latter is a bold statement. A ‘radical laboratory of the future’ implies a highly responsive, supra-institutional form and an openness to accelerate its own (r)evolution, before the tectonic shift triggered by the fourth industrial revolution renders it irrelevant and obsolete. To borrow from Joseph Schumpeter, it is about ‘creative destruction’ as we challenge the old and aggressively pursue change to unlock new energy and innovation.


Dr Shaun Vorster has been announced as the University of Stellenbosch Business School Alumnus of the year on 31 October 2019 at the Kgalema Motlanthe Foundation Leadership Lecture held at the One & Only Hotel in Cape Town.