Etienne Pretorius, PBC Group (Pty) Ltd, provided the content in this article and is a response to the call for Business Management Consultants in Operations, HR and Financial Management in South Africa | 27th March 2020.

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There are four challenges for business owners which I identify in this article in terms of human resource (HR) and human resource management (HRM). They are not the only issues, but are those issues I have observed most recently consulting to my business clients. South African managers and business owners are well known for their resilience, but that strength could manifest as their weakness. Their perseverance can push them to try overcome obstacles which could be resolved using a different strategy. There are four challenges I want to highlight and then I will propose a few examples of what the solutions could look like:

  1. Skills gaps
  2. Capacity gaps
  3. COVID-19 and the 21-day isolation period
  4. The workforce average age

Skills gaps in South Africa are a major concern in which there is a demand for key decision-makers and leaders of the future. The skills gap is prevalent in micro, and small businesses run by the entrepreneur. The entrepreneur is often working in isolation and holds all the cards. I call it “the entrepreneur syndrome” where the business owner is also the founding member and maintains a tight control of the activities in the business. Their growth is stymied because they never learn to release roles or things to be done. This is often because they cannot afford the bill of using a specialist, or they just feel that other people don’t get the job done. 

The solutions to the skills gaps are not obvious. There is potential to extend the skills reach by outsourcing functions which are traditionally sourced in-house, for example, the procurement role. This would make it possible to fill the role gap while the business works through growing pains and works when help is sourced using consultants and consulting services. An entrepreneur could source a consultant who may freelance remotely or integrate themselves within the organisational structure. The difference is that they are motivated by different metrics and the associated price structures. These can mitigate the fears and trust issues associated with using freelancers and consultants. There is a fear of using freelancers, but these fears are mostly grounded in the fact that business owners haven’t paid the “school fees”. There is a learning curve to find the right freelancer, and this can only be learnt with research and learning. The business owner could utilise a consultant to do the sourcing in the short term, and involve themselves in the process so they get help to work through the learning curve.

I am often frustrated that existing HR cannot fit the needs that business owners have. The employee needs to consider how to make themselves relevant to the business. This is not the business owner’s responsibility; though there may be a moral choice by many business owners to assist. No, the responsibility remains with the employee to facilitate their own growth. Therefore, when the business adopts automation, the employee is ready to fill the skills gaps that are created.

Capacity gaps seem to be the trend in many businesses lately. It may be a consequence of a retrenchment process where people have experienced job enrichment, escalated pressures in an industry, or any number of other reasons. There are variables which contribute in that we can have a high-capacity one day, but then a much lower capacity the next day; or one person can get more done in a day than another person because they have had more practice or use different strategies. It is important that a person knows what is within their own capacity and then stretch to increase that capacity. 

Capacity solutions can be done using time management techniques, deliberate capacity stretching, or making any new challenge exciting and fun, or by building the desire to grow and take on more. The person could take on new projects, challenging their current capacity constraints. There are only 24 hours in a day, but some people seem to multiply those hours using different techniques, including collaboration. 

Collaboration between business owners creates a new dynamic. For business owners to collaborate they each need to know: a) the specific niche or offering they provide, b) the terms of the agreement between the parties, and c) what the content of that agreement is when times get tough. It’s advisable to draft a Service Level Agreement (SLA) when entering a collaborative agreement and then even consider supporting that SLA with a contract. The business owners might find that they need help with these documents, so would approach either a consultant or lawyer to draft the agreements.

COVID-19 and the 21-day isolation period (I call it C19-21SA) will bring focus on the future of work. The South African President Cyril Ramaphosa raised a call and catalysed the discussion regarding the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) in July 2019. He communicated the desire for South Africa to not only join and adopt this way of working, but to become leaders in that sphere. South African labour legislation doesn’t yet provide for employment of freelancers and business owners are no where ready to adopt 4IR. However, if you didn’t begin yesterday, there is always today. Business owners put forward many objections to the future of working. Yes, it is a paradigm shift that is necessary. Yes, it is possible to proceed into 4IR with a plan. It’s a mindset change that needs to take place and an urgent one at that. If business owners do not start considering their “4IR Future of Work” then they will find their offering become redundant and the next generation building a substitute offering.

The solution lies in that the business relationship can still be documented using a Service Level Agreement (SLA) with a specialist (previously mentioned), which means it remains within the ambit of Contract Law rather than Labour Law. But both the private and public sectors need to adopt a new paradigm when considering a “Gig economy”. The future of work needs research as it applies to each case and business model. This economy is growing and so, South African business owners need to keep up with developments in terms of artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things (IoT), network-based logic, machine learning, augmented virtual reality and quantum computing, and Blockchain. Anything done by a person at a fundamental level can be replaced or automated. This means the people working at those levels need to develop their offerings. Herein lies the challenge. To achieve competitiveness tomorrow, a business owner needs to consider how he will develop and use his HR today.

The workforce average age is getting younger. There is research which shows that by 2030, Africa will be home to more than a quarter of the world’s population under the age of 25, which will make up 60% of the continent’s total population. That means 15% of the world’s working population will live in Africa. The GenXs and Millennials are positioned to fill skill and role gaps in new business models and new ways of working that require critical new technical, digital, and soft skills. The problem is that they don’t work well with others and choose not to submit to conventional authority structures. Since they don’t fit well, there is consequently a problem that they are not being mentored and integrated into existing companies. The school system has never taught them to earn for themselves, and they end up stuck in low-end jobs where they are unhappy. There is hope for these people. But they need to take responsibility for their own futures and develop into knowledge workers. There is also a responsibility for business owners to create legacy and create environments for the knowledge workers to function.

The solution lies in developing the way exco’s lead knowledge workers within a learning organisation. Emotional intelligence and self-awareness must become areas which exco leaders develop quickly; they should be the ones with the wisdom to guide and nurture. The future leadership of any business lies in the hands of the younger generations. It is my opinion that the onus lies with current leaders to get forthcoming generations to a place where they can fill roles.

Current leaders can appoint strong coaching professionals to achieve generational integration and learning. Coaching professionals can independently facilitate the sharing of knowledge. Sharing knowledge is like sharing power, because knowledge can provide an element of power. People are just not prepared to share power in an environment where power is perceived to provide political leverage. Often the coaching professionals can help the exco leaders realise that they need to take the initiative and provide ways to circumvent objections. This doesn’t mean the exco leader is entirely at fault for the generational communication filters. It just means they would normally have the wisdom, knowledge and emotional maturity to take the first step toward bridging gaps.

I was still very young when my father bought our first TV. I grew up in an era in which Tim Berners-Lee, a British scientist at CERN, invented the World Wide Web (WWW) – 1989. The web was originally conceived and developed to meet the demand for automatic information-sharing between scientists in universities and institutes around the world. I was 19 years old.

I’m a member of Generation X, a small generation known to have a strong hybrid relationship with technology. I have seen lots of change and have noted that the pace of change has accelerated. I also adopt the GenX trait of easily establishing collaborations. I had the privilege to work and collaborate with someone who showed me I am strong as a connector (Thanks Aggie). So, if not me, I implore you, please get someone to assist you with the collaboration. This is a critical need if you are a business owner, exco or corporate manager reading this article. Our time is now, use it.

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