What will it take for Africa to drive US$5-trillion digital economy?

Africa's digital
opportunity

Continent's progress
under the spotlight.


Tuesday, Nov 19th

Digital transformation in the South African context

Digital transformation in the South African context

The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) has been positioned as 'the next big thing'. Yet, care must be taken if it is not simply going to become another buzz phrase that means very little in addressing societal challenges.

The World Economic Forum defines this as a fundamental change in the way we live, work, and relate to one another. It goes on to state that technological advances are merging the physical, digital, and biological worlds to create opportunities. At a more basic level, 4IR should be viewed as the second Internet wave where people tap into the potential of technology that is overlaid with data to make their lives easier.

And while the path each country is taking to embrace this might differ, the important thing is that they do, or risk being left behind. For its part, the South African government has shown its willingness to take on the principles of 4IR with President Cyril Ramaphosa reinforcing this message during his recent State of the Nation address.

It is not like there is much choice. If countries do not adapt to this fundamental change in the way technology is impacting our lives, they will lose their relevance when competing with those more advanced. It is therefore imperative that the way digital transformation is changing business, our lives, and education must be understood in the South African context.

Business considerations

Thanks to the availability of increasingly sophisticated technologies such as cloud computing, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and predictive analytics, more companies are moving away from manually intensive operations.

Just look at mining as an example. Machine learning can predict equipment breakages ahead of time with an accuracy that helps avoid downtime and the associated costs, sets less arbitrary maintenance, and improves overall safety in the operation. This digital transformation of traditional processes means companies can become more proactive and focus efforts on upskilling workers for a more connected environment.

And yet, despite the advantages, the human element causes contention. Some are concerned, for example, that the digitally transformed economy will replace human talent. The reality could not be further from the truth. By getting people to embrace 4IR-led technological advances, they can empower themselves and deliver more strategic value to a business, irrespective of industry.

Granted, this is an incredibly difficult shift when one considers manual labourers and their understandable reluctance towards technology. But here is where the employer can help people take on greater responsibility and work better in a digital world; some roles will need to be redefined, but it is up to industry and government to find ways of helping people transition into new jobs and giving them the skills required to do so with confidence.

A comparison can be drawn with the demand for IT talent in South Africa in the late 90s and early 2000s. Just like it was then, there is now a requirement for new types of skills. Yes, everything today is about being tech-centric, but its ultimate success is determined by a people-driven approach.

Our daily lives

Of course, we are all acutely aware of how technology is making our lives easier. Smartphones are getting smarter, smart homes are becoming mainstream for many, and ordering everything from groceries to takeaways to clothes happens at the swipe of a finger on an app.

Today, people are becoming more adaptable to this increased technological complexity. They are beginning to embrace the smart devices around them. Just consider how smart metering for water and electricity is something that is accepted (and demanded). Even in South Africa, the potential of digital transformation is making our daily activities less arduous.

A new education

One area that is still lagging significantly in South Africa is education.

It is evident that our curriculum must change if learners are to better compete against the rest of the world. Part of this entails redefining the skills required for future careers and structuring education in a way that will meet those demands as quickly as possible.

Yet, our rural schools are ill equipped. There are learners writing their Grade 12 exams who have never even seen the laboratory apparatus they are writing about. Thankfully, the technology that can change this, exists.

By embracing digital transformation, the education system can reinvent the classroom. Using augmented reality and virtual reality, learners can access laboratories and experience them firsthand. They can even use virtual apparatus and conduct lab experiments, as opposed to just reading about them in a textbook.

Using the available technology, learners can engage with things in different ways and get excited about their futures. If South Africa is to compete in the world of 4IR, this must be a priority.

Changing environment

This moves the conversation towards how best to implement the changes business and education need to fully transform for a digital environment. The government and private sector must work together urgently to help those without access.

Additionally, policies need to be shaped to create an enabling 4IR platform and resources should be allocated to where they are most urgently needed. For South Africa, the digital transformation priority is to provide access (and education) to the potential that technology can unlock.

Begin at the beginning

While the initial steps on the digital transformation journey might seem daunting, government and the private sector can build momentum by focusing on these key steps:

  • Conduct an extensive audit to determine the level of technology sophistication. This could initially focus on schools but can extend to municipalities and other areas where service delivery is crucial
  • Determine what the targets will be when it comes to digital transformation. There needs to be a clear vision to gauge the success of a project
  • Ensure that resources with expertise in digital transformation and technology solutions from the private sector are engaged at audit level, strategic goal setting, roadmap determination, technology selection, solution implementation and management reporting
  • Select the right tools for the right job. That means, the right solution and implementation partners from the private sector to ensure best in breed solution implementation
  • Set timelines and budget for all stakeholders to be aware of what is expected by when
  • Focus on the quick wins to not only improve employee morale, but also uplift the communities and areas where it will make a discernible difference
  • Consistency evaluate and evolve the various projects. Outcomes and targets need to be regularly removed against KPIs to ensure positive implementation
  • Keep the human element at the forefront of every initiative
  • Employ broader community engagement

* By Puseletso Tshabalala, director of business development at 4Sight South Africa.

ALSO ON ITWEB AFRICA