No time like the present at UCT GSB

As work, education and communication enter a remotely accessible, tech-enabled existence, our changed habits are often called the “new normal”. But as anyone who’s conducted an interview over video chat, submitted an assignment online or joined a parents’ WhatsApp group will point out, this isn’t entirely new: our ways of learning and earning have been slowly integrating online tools for some time now. For all its newness and futuristic feeling, our current situation can then perhaps be viewed as an acceleration of the inevitable — with all of the good and bad that that ‘inevitable’ brings — that necessitates a blend of skills and knowledge old and new. 

“Contact teaching has ceded centre-stage to a host of tech-enabled learning formats,” Rayner Canning, Director of Business Development at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business (UCT GSB). “Just as there is a declining need to commute to the office or fly to meetings, technology enabled-learning will reduce the need for face-to-face teaching. Of course there will still be a demand for such training, but not exclusively. We currently estimate that as much as 30% of previous face-to-face teaching will be replaced by tech-enabled modalities. The longer the pandemic impacts mobility and return to ‘normality’, the higher that displacement percentage will become.” 

What the UCT GSB calls the Live Online format has enabled deeper and broader engagements with company executives — learning takes place in real time, but mostly online, so there’s seldom a need for all parties to be in the same physical space. To get organisational leaders into the virtual classroom for short, focussed sessions aligned with content under discussion, the biggest challenge is merely one of scheduling. This provides for rich learning that’s immediately grounded in business reality. 

As the pandemic hit and lockdown began, a pivot to this real-time, digital format was initially the only viable option: like many organisations, the UCT GSB was equipped with digital capabilities, but still maintained a core business that relied on in-person teaching. “That has all changed as we, along with our clients, have evolved and adapted to the new operating environment,” says Canning. The school has invested time in developing effective asynchronous digital assets and materials, but is aware that many of its clients still place high value on real-time engagements. 

“Much of the training we provide is grounded within the day-to-day operations of businesses, and by its very nature needs ongoing workplace application. Transformative learning is accompanied by shifts in behaviour that ultimately deliver improved results. Companies understand that to achieve transformative learning, high levels of real-time engagement, debate, enquiry and practice are required — these are all best achieved in a real-time learning format.”

Across industries, it’s become clear that a holistic approach is needed in preparing oneself for both a career and the work environment itself — whatever that may look like in years to come. “Unquestionably, during this time of immense uncertainty we have seen a huge demand for the so-called softer skills — notably empathy, authenticity, inclusiveness and also decisiveness,” says Canning. 

Citing a Financial Times study in which employers named what they want most from Executive Education, he notes that those surveyed listed leadership as the top learning priority, followed by change management, then diversity and inclusion. Considering the intrinsic links that all of these top three factors have with organisational culture and company-specific strategies, as well as their close ties to the ways in which individuals and organisations weather their internal and external storms, it’s clear that “the new way of working” means more than an increased number of video calls on our calendar: the ability to demonstrate and foster resilience in a fast-changing world is taking its rightful place alongside in-demand “hard skills”. 

“This is why companies are even more focused on customised programmes than before,” says Canning. “They need to prepare their workforce for ongoing disruption and change. If they are to survive and thrive, they need leaders who are equipped to lead and manage in these unprecedented times.” 

At the UCT GSB, customised programmes have long lent value to the institution’s offering, as faculty curates not only fit-for-purpose content required by clients, but also facilitates engagement between programme participants. “Through the customisation process, we’ve been able to fine-tune training solutions that align with specific organisational objectives — these are multi-disciplinary programmes that are then able to focus on company specific pain points and alleviate particular skills gaps that have been identified,” Canning adds.

The UCT GSB offers a variety of programmes that cover these key learning priorities, from leadership and management development programmes such as the Programme for Management Development, the Executive Development Programme, Developing Women in Leadership, Finance for non-Financial Managers and Negotiation Skills for Managers, to business acumen-related courses such as Strategic Thinking and Execution for Growth.

For individuals as well as organisations, these turbulent times have brought about a reassessment of career goals, and these circumstances are also driving a desire for more closely in-tune personal and professional growth. “The unabated increase in disruption faced by everyone has also necessitated far greater personal and professional introspection — here we are talking about purpose. Individuals are placing a huge premium on having alignment between their personal and professional purpose.”

For companies, staff, faculty members and students, there’s value to be found in new ways of working — among them, less time spent commuting, and costs saved on daily transport and business travel — but it may not be too idealistic to say that ultimately, one of the benefits will be more rewarding work. For those wondering which paths in executive education will lead to their increased fulfilment, there are myriad choices to navigate, as the options are plentiful and specific. Some advice remains relevant whatever the platform for learning — and whether exploring one’s education options in the digital realm, in person, or in a blend of both, research and common sense will stand prospective students in good stead. 

“Do your homework,” says Canning, when asked what those choosing a course should consider. “Don’t just go by the catchy course name and marketing jargon. It’s also important that you know what form of study is best suited for you. For some, asynchronous self-paced learning works, for others they need the buzz of the classroom and personal engagements. If you’re a working professional, check in with your Learning and Development team about what skills the business is looking to develop.” 

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