The Collective X: driven by the opportunity to harness and unlock the transformative power of digital skills

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During the inaugural Collective X conference held on 13 June at the Urban Brew Studios in Johannesburg, the first and largest private sector convening of the digital skills ecosystem, delegates connected about approaches to solving the digital skills crisis in South Africa.

According to Collective X, a digital revolution is brewing in South Africa. The country stands on the brink of extraordinary growth and innovation. However, to access this growth, South Africa first has to navigate the current digital skills crisis.

A major discussion point during the gathering is how these skills represent a R400 billion economic opportunity for South Africa, and digital skills can unlock the potential of South Africa’s youth, promoting economic growth and global competitiveness.

The vision and potential opportunities

The opening plenary session at the Collective X conference featured guest speakers Lillian Barnard, president at Microsoft Africa, Phuthi Mahanyele-Dabengwa, South Africa CEO at Naspers, Mteto Nyati, executive chairperson of BSG and the chairperson of the board of Collective X, Nonkqubela Jordan-Dyani, the director-general of the Department of Communications and Digital Technology, and Vukani Mngxati, CEO at Accenture Africa.

“I think Collective X is an idea that has come at the right time,” was Mteto’s opening remark. “The formula that we’ve relied on in the past of working in silos to address the skills crisis has clearly not worked, and it is good that we’ve come to this realisation,” he added.

He continued to say that the youth have so much energy, but have lost hope, and Collective X has the power to restore that hope to them.

Lillian looked at the opportunity that AI presents. According to her, if Africa captured just 10 percent of the AI opportunity, it could have its share of a trillion-dollar opportunity. “We need to prepare our youth who are looking for work – work, by the way, which has in recent years changed. We are now living in a digitally skilled society,” she noted. “South African youth are the future of the workforce, not only in our country but in the rest of the globe.”

Phuthi spoke on the digital skilling initiatives. “We need to ensure that the youth have access to digital platforms and we have done this through Naspers Labs, a social impact programme that addresses youth unemployment through digital skills training.”

What will it take to deliver a pipeline of digitally skilled youth? Don’t look at the skills that aren’t needed, but rather follow where the crucial skills are, responded Vukani Mngxati.

“When I travel and see what other countries are doing, it tells me what we need to do as South Africa,” he noted. “African countries that were miles behind South Africa in the past are now leading the conversation when it comes to digital skills.”

A consistent theme emerged from the discussion: the importance of more effective strategic planning, including shorter timelines, swift implementation of government mandates, private sector skills-matching, and combined monetary resources to support national youth training programmes. Nonkqubela noted, “Training programmes without the correct vacancies and sufficient budget for stipends to address basic needs are ineffective.”

“Let’s build the skills that are demand-driven, skills at the right price point, and skills at the right quality standard that matches the rest of the world,” the speakers agreed.

Pairing tech with people

In the CIO roundtable discussion led by Ziaad Suleman, group chief commercial officer at EOH, alongside guest speakers Dr Denisha Jairam-Owthar, CIO at the Council for Medical Schemes, Faith Burn, CIO at Eskom, Helen Constantinides, CIO at Avbob, and Khomotso Molabe, CIO at Standard Bank, the speakers observed how the tech landscape has become one that enables business, and how tech is no longer the discussion, but rather the business output.

Khomotso reflected on how the demand for skills has evolved in his environment of financial services. “I work with financial people and I often say that we are a tech company who merely has a banking licence,” he noted.

“When you look at our graduate programmes 10 years ago, it mainly produced finance graduates and fast-forward to today, it now churns out engineers and data scientists. From a revenue perspective, we are using tech to create new revenue opportunities.”

Faith, on the other hand, believes that the tech conversation is the easy part; the real conversation rather should be around how tech is making an impact on the business, and using it to solve business problems. “The business conversation comes before the tech conversation.”

“We need to understand the purpose, which I understand to be the people, the business and the process, and we also need to be careful not to digitise everything, because that human touch is important as well,” added Helen.

“It is important that IT aligns from a tech and business perspective, where it improves processes by removing legacy systems, and also looks at the technological skills needed in the business for the future.”

According to Denisha, “Enablement in my world has a deeper dimension: it’s about people learning how to co-exist with tech rather than fearing what it can do.”

Denisha also criticised how educated people are not being utilised to their fullest potential, such as individuals with master’s degrees who undergo training programme after training programme rather than being employed from the onset. In addition, Denisha critiqued how companies are spending so much on offshore skills and not looking within our own shores.

Ziaad spoke about the culture of instant gratification and how instead of looking internally or upskilling, most organisations would rather poach the skills they desire from other companies. “This is a mindset that needs to change,” he emphasised.

As a board member of Collective X he also noted that, “The current skills supply issues are beyond being talkshopped, which is why Collective X’s mission is so critical at this time. The private sector’s engagement with training institutions needs to be bolstered by meaningful collaboration and lowering the barriers to entry to gain on-the-job experience.”

When it came to the sought-after skills the CIOs looked for in potential candidates, Faith said that besides the noted lack of cybersecurity skills, she was really interested in purpose. “I'm a purpose-driven leader and go out of my way to find purpose-driven people when I recruit. From a soft skills perspective, I often look at a person's ability to embrace change,” Faith said.

“I look for the hunger in people, people who want to get somewhere in life. The skills that go beyond the tech skills, but the ability to have conversations and techies who are coming out of their introverted shells,” Helen added.

The speakers concluded that Collective X has a huge role to play in getting the right skills in, and to get them in will require the right education coupled with access to the right education.

The conference closed with the announcement of the Digital Skills Industry Fund, which has already raised R50 million from globally recognised donor partners and has additional funding in the pipeline. The fund is designed to crowd-in and leverage impact skills investments from businesses, government, and donors.

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