People 'n' Issues

Education needs rethink for digital future

February 23rd, 2018
Africa faces a set of potential scenarios brought on by the disruption of digital technologies. But we need a workforce that has the skills and understanding to drive these potentials and bring them to reality, writes SIMON CARPENTER, Chief Technology Advisor at SAP Africa.

Africa faces a set of potential scenarios brought on by the disruption of digital technologies. This in turn provides the continent exponential opportunities for transformation in every aspect of work and life. But we need a workforce that has the skills and understanding of digital technologies to drive these potentials and bring them to reality.

The world of work now faces unprecedented disruption. There is no profession that will be untouched by the advances in machine learning and AI: a recent PwC report on the impact of automation found that 38% of jobs in the US are at risk. As far back as 2012, Dr Thomas Frey has predicted that more than 2 billion jobs will disappear by 2030 thanks to technological advances.

The skills imperative

Africa largely missed the Industrial Era; since the continent is immensely rich in mineral wealth and arable land, most countries had little need to industrialise. This has left most African countries underdeveloped and lacking the infrastructure that has made more developed nations so wealthy. As we enter the Fourth Industrial Revolution, there is optimistic talk about Africa taking a leap forward in its development to not only catch up but surpass some of its Western peers.

But unless we drastically accelerate STEM skills development, Africa will be left trailing in the dust of global progress for decades. New skills such as computational biology, data science, and algorithmic programming will replace huge numbers of middle class occupations. Without a solid grounding in science, technology, maths and engineering, young workers will simply not have the skills needed to survive – and thrive – in tomorrow’s economy. Initiatives such as Africa Code Week, which is this year aiming to teach basic coding skills to half a million youngsters, and the so-called MOOCS (massive open online courses) such as Coursera and OpenSAP will become invaluable to educators as the pace of change outstrips governments’ and education departments’ ability to maintain a relevant and future-looking curriculum.

Rethinking how we prepare our children for the future of work

While technology poses risks, its potential benefits are immense. The same machine learning technology that is making many jobs irrelevant could be deployed to understand how children learn at an individual level, allowing educators to tailor the classroom experience and curriculum to maximise each unique child’s talents.

Teachers need to be equipped with the tools and content that will inspire a new generation of learners to be curious, learn, and apply new technologies to solve problems that are not even known to us yet. Without great teachers, great teaching is impossible. Clever use of gamification, video content, augmented and virtual reality, and social media can transform the learning and teaching process and inspire learners and teachers alike.

As technological progress further accelerates, we will need to continuously learn new skills and update and augment our knowledge. In the 1950s, the half-life of what you learned at university was as much as 30 years. Today, it’s closer to 5. If you want to work for what we now consider to be a normal working life of 40 years, you need to keep learning or face irrelevance.

The new face of work

The inevitable result of this is that a new type of worker will emerge, challenging organisations by forcing them to radically rethink not only their employment policies but their entire business vision. We are already seeing how the hyper-connected millennial workforce is upending long-held beliefs of what constitutes meaningful and worthwhile work.

These Millennials are generally not interested in the accumulation of material goods at all costs. The hallmark of the 80s and roaring 90s was an accelerating consumerism as technology enabled us to provide convenience and luxury at an unprecedented scale. This new generation demands more from companies and governments: matters such as environmental sustainability, social impact, and equitable distribution of wealth take priority over capitalism’s “profit at all costs” approach.

This has given rise to a new type of organisation, one that strives for a purpose that transcends pure profit. It’s no longer enough to show only positive bottom-line results: if your business is harmful, inequitable, discriminatory, or otherwise counter to prevailing ethical behaviour, you will soon find yourself unable to compete with more socially conscious companies that are able to attract the very best in digital talent.

All exponential organisations have a massively transformational purpose that extends beyond pure profit. SAP’s is to help the world run better and improve peoples’ lives. And, like any organisation, our ability to fulfil that purpose rests wholly on the digital workforce we have to invest in today.

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