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The Fourth Industrial Revolution is no longer an abstract concept – it is happening. Leaders will do well to incorporate its emerging technologies into their organisations.

With the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) continuing to disrupt global markets, it is time that leaders prepare themselves to meet this challenge. The Johannesburg Business School’s (JBS), a faculty of the University of Johannesburg, recent launch of its Doctor of Philosophy (DPhil) in Digital Transformation is quickly being considered the very programme that can help business executives and organisational leaders adapt to an ever-changing digital environment.

As one of the first digital-centric business programmes at South Africa’s highest level of education, the DPhil is providing academic credibility to a subject that has long been seen as an abstract concept. The programme is in line with the JBS’ goal of becoming South Africa’s premier business school for the digital era. It is for business executives and organisational leaders who are poised to introduce and be the frontrunners of the digital transformation efforts of their organisations.

For the last decade, 4IR has been a subject best left to futurists, global economic lobbying organisations, governments and the few businesses that saw emerging technologies looming. However, according to Professor Lungile Ntsalaze, the Head of the JBS DPhil in Digital Transformation programme, 4IR technologies are fast becoming a part of our daily lives, and leaders will need to incorporate them into their operations. “The transformation to a digital future is happening right now. Everyone has to be prepared for the disruption that it will cause.”

The DPhil programme is that very tool that will help make organisations future fit, said Ntsalaze. “The technologies are bursting out of laboratories and making their way into the world on a marketable scale. Our programme prepares students to take advantage of the new opportunities that will arise from this disruption.”

Unlike traditional doctoral programmes, this particular doctoral degree is a balanced mix of theory and practice with a supervisory panel to benefit students’ work from a diverse pool of experts. Mentors are on hand to support candidates throughout the research proposal development stages. Since digital transformation cuts across organisational functions and industries, this programme, through a highly selective admission process, is accessible to anyone with a Master’s Degree from any field of study.

4IR tech meeting global challenges head-on

The World Economic Forum’s Centre for Fourth Industrial Revolution considers emerging technologies – such as big data, blockchain, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, cloud computing and drone technology, among many others – as tools that can help us overcome the global challenges of inequality, climate change and food security.

Ntsalaze said that turning digital transformation into a subject of study emphasises the important role organisations play in overcoming these global challenges. “Digital transformation has long been government’s swansong to keep South Africa relevant within the global economy. But government may not be able to transform the country as quick as large businesses can. Corporates can adopt emerging technologies swiftly and take them to market. If business rides this wave, South Africa will remain a vital part of the global economy.”

He added that it is the business sector that will be the catalyst for wholesale digital transformation.

Finding innovative solutions to real-life problems

While there is a gap between digitisation and the lack of skills among the population – which has increased rates of unemployability – a key aspect often overlooked is business skills, said Ntsalaze. “In the not-so-distant past, countering unemployment meant creating jobs, upskilling employee’s digital skills or encouraging entrepreneurship. These interventions have not worked. Instead, we need digitally skilled workers with good business acumen.”

He added that the government would need to address this gap as soon as possible to prevent much of the labour force from becoming irrelevant in the near future. “It is no wonder that some multinational tech companies are coming to South Africa with ready-made expat workers. South Africa needs to recognise that we need a workforce that is digitally adept and business savvy.”

A worldwide survey conducted by the next-generation online university platform, Nexford University, found that 85 million jobs will be unfilled by 2030 due to skill shortages. It also stated that 87% of employers worldwide report a lack of talent. “A globalised business world run with digital tools that demand employees have high levels of skill. Soon enough, we will find that semi-formal – or middle-skilled – positions need to be filled by highly educated individuals,” said Ntsalaze.

JBS is at the interface of academia, business and the public sector to have a real impact on society with the DPhil, giving students conceptual knowledge and practical tools to initiate, lead and manage the digital transformation process for their organisations. Students, supported by leading researchers and industry experts, will undertake rigorous scholarly research to develop the intellectual capacity that is essential to address societal challenges.

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