#10 Winter 2018

How to respond to the age of massive disruption

Golden MBA alumni from the class of 1967 engaged with Professor Ralph Hamann on what it means to live and work in the age of AI during their class reunion in February.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is changing the way we live and work. And while many analysts are hopeful and excited – saying change could enhance quality of life and widen access to essential services – it is hard to ignore the dangers of job losses and an increasing concentration of wealth and power. So says Professor Ralph Hamann, Research Director at the UCT Graduate School of Business (GSB).

Hamann was addressing the GSB MBA Class of 1967 during their recent golden reunion celebrations. A group of business veterans who have witnessed the evolution of business from pen and paper to emails and smart phones, these alumni are excited at the possibilities that the current technological revolution holds. However, the dangers and challenges of AI, particularly in an emerging market context, were the focus of the discussion as the class engaged with Hamann on how to respond to this age of massive disruption.

As part of the discussion, Hamann shared current thinking of his GSB colleagues. Kurt April, professor in leadership, diversity and inclusion and Chair of the Allan Gray Centre for Values-Based Leadership, is excited about the expanding options and opportunities technology can bring to improve workplaces through remote working and gaming for instance. Associate Professor Hamieda Parker, lecturer in operations and supply chain management, is also positive about the possibilities for efficiency, especially in operations, but is concerned about the downside of job losses. And, Professor Thomas Koelble, convener of the markets in emerging economies course on the MBA, warns that “our democratic systems cannot accommodate an ever-increasing concentration of wealth and power”.

Hamann stressed that technology itself is not to be feared, and that there is no way of predicting how technological advances will affect individuals or organisations. He added that history is full of examples of pundits who got it wrong – Darryl Zanuck head of Twentieth Century Fox in 1946 famously said: “TV won’t hold up after the first six months. People will get tired of staring at a plywood box every night”.

A recent McKinsey report also shows that while there has always been a fear of technology and how machines might replace jobs, over time, these technological advances often lead to new industries and increased job creation. “However, the issue here is the time lag. People will not have these new jobs straight away, and they will require different skills to perform them,” said Hamann.

The best way to face the AI challenge is therefore to keep abreast of innovation and to empower organisations to be agile and adapt to change, said Hamann. The focus for individuals and organisations should be to put in place structures which re-skill people and value social and environmental performance.

Ken Dreyer, a 1967 alumnus now living in Boston, shared his experience of working with a B Corporation as a way in which the business world might look to other models to mitigate the risks of job losses in the continual quest for profit. B Corporations are for-profit companies, certified by the global non-profit B Lab to meet standards of social and environmental performance and accountability. “If you look at B Corporations’ bottom line performance, they often out-perform companies that don’t do this,” he said.

Hamann agreed that businesses that value people, as much as profit, may gain a competitive advantage in that consumers may support organisations that build local communities and are seen to value and reward their people.

The 4th Industrial Revolution is clearly both an opportunity and a risk, not only for society and for current and future leaders, but also for the GSB itself. To deliver agile individuals and organisations fit for the future, Hamann concluded that the GSB is responding to the current environment in several ways. “The GSB is staying abreast in our research; innovating in what we teach to prepare students for risks and opportunities; innovating in how we teach by expanding into blended learning with a mix of on-line and face-to-face offerings; and finally, by continuing to provide thought leadership to the public and private sectors.”

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