It has never been more important to think about the future with empathy, write economist Iraj Abedian, Nicola Kleyn (Dean of GIBS), Michael Sassoon (Sasfin Group CEO) and Arthur Goldstuck.

Change has become mandatory, as have digitisation and transformation. Humanity is having to relearn itself. The new normal doesn’t exist – it is the normal for the world, right now. According to Michael Sassoon, Group CEO at Sasfin, the future of work, the future of banking and the future of financial services rest on a mercurial foundation of volatility and complexity that needs to be stabilised by recognising opportunity and the value of humanity.

“The virus is having a huge economic impact on South Africa and the world,” he says. “People are going through difficult challenges across a wide range of industries and they are suffering in terms of their jobs, their businesses and their lives. As the number of infections continues to rise, we can see the impact that this is having on our client base and it is going to take the collective thinking of industry and leaders to create a future that recognises the impact of this change and this new future.”

COVID-19 has forced the world into digital transformation. Companies and individuals have been digitised. Interaction, engagement and business have become virtual. Digital transformation moved from buzzword to lived reality. And it is hard to process. Human beings are great at evolution and adaptation, but change on this scale is difficult to conceive of right now. So, how do the world and the financial sector plan to adapt to this new accelerated humanity?

“It would be wrong to not reflect on the challenges and the realities of the moment,” says Sassoon. “It is time to adopt an open mind, a future-forward approach, and to make difficult decisions that will allow individuals and organisations to embrace change.”

Digitalisation disrupts

It is a view shared by the Executive Chairman of Pan-African Capital Holdings, Iraj Abedian and the Dean of the Gordon Institute of Business Science, Nicola Kleyn in a discussion around the human, societal and economic impact of digital acceleration. The discussion forms part of the Sasfin Digital Council’s initiative to provide a platform for guiding the market as it enters the era of digital transformation and to assist organisations in unravelling the challenges that define this new era.

“Digitalisation disrupts. It is a process of destruction and creation that can ultimately take the economy to another level,” says Abedian. “It speeds up the rate at which the economy mutates from one equilibrium to another, and this mutation is driven by the deepening of digitisation within every facet of culture and business. Every sphere of economic activity as we used to experience it is now being disrupted by the deepening of digitisation.”

Disrupted at a pace that has been dictated by the pandemic. Where transformation and the Industrial Revolution would take up to 70 years to truly settle in, digital transformation and the Fourth Industrial Revolution have been sped up exponentially. This is placing leaders – both in the public and private sector – in the spotlight. Public policy is essential – even governments are not immune to the negative aspects of digitalisation – to catch the horse before it runs too far from the stable. Governments cannot afford to be slow to respond or society as a whole could lose out. From what? The benefits of what this rapid onset of digitalisation could bring to society and economy.

“Country policy has to evolve, particularly the regulatory environment, but we also need to think about the individual,” says Kleyn. “Ultimately, the success or failure of digitalisation will be about human beings willing to stop and unlearn. We cannot just automatically program on top of what we already know – we have to relearn and the question is, how will this play out at the national level?”

Leaders must participate

Organisational operating models continue to engage with clients in the same old ways. People are still assimilating the vast swathes of change that have affected their lives. Leaders have to be prescient about how digitisation is going to impact individual, business and public sector. They can no longer just leave digital transformation in the hands of the people who work in IT – it has to be embedded into the organisation’s culture and driven by leadership in order to succeed. It also has to recognise the socio-economic impact of the pandemic alongside this rapid run of digital change.

“If we ignore what it means to be our best as human beings in this digital environment, we are going to miss a trick,” says Kleyn. “We need to deal with issues around uncertainty, fear, change, compassion, and the ability to form close social relationships. We ignore this at our peril – we cannot have a digital universe if we cannot redress inequality, racism and societal divides because then we cannot lead.”

There are challenges that have to be addressed in education and inequality. Changes that have to be managed in terms of forced digital transformation and societal isolation. And complexities that have to be recognised in terms of how organisations and individuals approach a future that’s certain only in its uncertainty. There are few answers to these questions and the long-term effect of the change wrought by the pandemic but now is the time to start finding them, and changing how industry, sector and individual approaches tomorrow. It’s time to unlearn the old normal.

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