Class of the future: The first ‘digital business’ students graduate at WBS

There was much jubilation and cheering when Wits Business School (WBS) Executive Education recently graduated the first ever cohort of digital business students. This ground-breaking event was the culmination of an eight-month journey for BCX managers at all levels, who were willing “guinea pigs” in WBS’s brand new digital business executive short courses.

The cutting-edge programmes are part of WBS’s Chair in Digital Business, which the school founded in 2016 with funding partners BCX, a digital solutions company and a wholly owned subsidiary of Telkom. The chair is also a centre for research in a field that, up until now, has never been formally studied in South African academia.

“The programmes were designed specifically to train an organisation’s managers to lead on all fronts in an era of rapid and unpredictable digitalisation,” says Professor Brian Armstrong, director of the WBS/BCX Chair in Digital Business. “This has been a ground-breaking venture for WBS Executive Education and it has been a privilege to work alongside with BCX in creating these new programmes.”

The programmes were designed to help junior, middle and senior managers keep up to speed with, and embrace, the new digitalised world of work. They includes modules such as Digital Technology Fundamentals, Digital Marketing, Business Strategy for a Digital World, Digital Transformation and Change Management, with a strong focus on leadership.

Professor Gregory Lee, director of Executive Education Digital Programmes at WBS, says: “The programmes were co-created in close collaboration with BCX in line with the specific needs of the company. The beauty of these programmes is that they can be refashioned to address the needs of any organisation. Within a rigorous academic framework, there is a lot of flexibility.”

Julian Liebenberg, chief telecommunications officer at BCX, reiterated that companies require a new generation of leaders that are armed with the skills to use the Internet of Things (IOT) to the benefit of the business.

“Innovation is vital for a company’s survival, but innovation on its own has no value. It has to be agreed to and, even more importantly, executed. Without proper execution, innovation remains an idea, and nothing more. South Africa is ready to embrace digitalisation but needs a new generation of leadership that is comfortable with change and not afraid to embrace new ways of innovating.”

Armstrong is confident that the digital business programmes will have opened the delegates’ eyes to the myriad opportunities in the changing world of work.

“The Fourth Industrial Revolution is rapidly rewriting the rules of the game for organisations and individuals. Digitalisation creates new business models, destroys and creates jobs, radically streamlines processes and structures, and calls for new forms of leadership. Our Executive Education programmes are a very exciting step forward in preparing business leaders in South Africa for the future world of work,” he says.

Beyond executive education short courses, the Wits Business School Chair in Digital Business launched its new Postgraduate Diploma in Digital Business and its Master of Management in Digital Business last year, and the first cohorts began classes in February 2019. These ground-breaking academic programmes (at NQF levels 8 and 9) are the first of their kind in Africa.

Henley Business School outlines its offering

1. What kind of candidates does your school seek to attract?

We’re looking for people who want to lift their futures through studying hard, learning skills and building character. We’re looking for normal people with above average commitment. We specialise in trying to create “family-friendly” learning — good learning design can reduce the amount of stress that partners and children feel during programmes. Our students are 70% + BBBEE, 50% or more women and they succeed in anonymous international assessments from a leading international business school as well, if not better, than their UK, Scandinavian and Asian peers.

The move from a specialist to a general management position, or to entrepreneurship or to senior level requires a broad understanding of how to strategise, build business models, understand how finance works, and most importantly, to get results with and through others.

2. When in the spectrum of one’s career do you think that one ideally applies for an executive education programme?

There are so many programmes to choose from, but one simple principle remains. In the world we work and live in now we must commit to lifelong learning in order to continually upskill, evolve and keep ourselves relevant. We provide programmes that allow participants to get a top level international education, while still working and maintaining relationships.

3. What do you seek to provide your learners with through your programme?

Our commitment is “we build the people who build the businesses that build Africa”. We want to ensure people leave Henley with the practical skills and knowledge to make a difference, be recognised, and grow as leaders through the strength of their understanding, ability to understand themselves and others, and to get results. We build the ability to think well, make sense of complexity, be novel and inventive, and be courageous enough to go into new areas and skilled enough to succeed in them.

4. Do you provide tailored courses, and how tailored are they?

We do more than provide tailoring courses: we invent, innovate, adapt, customise and design original, high-impact learning for individual companies, or for sectors, or for types of leadership. We take design very seriously indeed. We call ourselves a “design agency for learning”. We teach ourselves the skills of design; we have an international group of progressive, clever and motivated education designers. We co-design in depth with our clients. We focus on being very good at what we do and we learn intensively. Everyone working at Henley must be studying every year and we give everyone free learning, in whatever they are studying. We simply want to make our clients’ businesses, and their people, better.

5. What are the major factors one needs to take into consideration when thinking of organisational courses versus tailored or other courses that you provide?

Customised programmes are often pushing the progressive and imaginative edge of learning, innovative, challenging and relevant to the particular businesses, strategies, dilemmas and ambitions of each client. No two of our programmes are the same: each is designed, none are “plug and play”. Open accredited programmes provide qualifications and a stairway of learning. You can go all the way from post-matric to a triple-accredited international MBA with Henley.

6. What’s the top trait the programme offers to individuals and organisations?

We want people to develop confidence and courage, and we give them that by providing a top level of learning at proven international standard. This grounded, practical confidence, linked to a much better understanding of themselves and others help make them real drivers of change who are self-starters, and with good business and creative acumen.

7. What is the one thing you think a lot of people who take up the courses are surprised to learn or discover?

They are always highly appreciative of the self-mastery and understanding of themselves. That knowledge really is power and gives them great resilience. They really see themselves and the works of business differently afterwards. It’s not so much career that drives them, but success in building businesses that offer value and make a difference to South Africa.

8. What do you expect learners to bring to the table?

To be human, to drop perfectionism and commit to learning. They must do the work, work on themselves and want to make a difference in life. We will do the rest.

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