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We Can Be Certain Of Uncertainty This Year

By Marius Meyer – 

Over the last five years, business and leadership thought leaders have challenged managers and business professionals to get ready for the VUCA world, i.e. an acronym for volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.  We were told that we must be able to deal with uncertainty if we want to be successful.  While much of management thinking in the past was about creating stable organisations with principles such as quality, consistency, replicability, and simplicity at its core, the recent focus on dealing with uncertainty has become the new normal in business.

For instance, over the past thirty years management practice was dominated by clarity and certainty.  Management philosophies such as quality management, risk management and project management attempted to create a sense of certainty, stability and predictability in business.  The argument was that if you can make it clear how you will produce quality or plan and manage a project according to a clear process and deliverables then you are in control of your business and its operations.

However, as volatility increased in the external business environment, this spilled over inside companies with business leaders now realising that a more flexible approach is needed.  While you can map your processes, and chart your plans and projects with beautifully designed project plans, the new reality is that business does not work like that anymore.  The new age of disruption makes this even more difficult, and business leaders often come short when they are too slow to adapt to the forces of change and disruption.  In the past you could even determine the rules of the game and then manage your business according to these clearly defined principles and rules.  Now the rules of the game change in the middle of the game, and business leaders are simply unable to cope with this fast changing environment.

The rapid emergence of new and disruptive business models, such as Uber and many others, are forcing business leaders to think differently about how they do business.  In practice, disruption means that your business model is actively being studied and then immediately challenged by disrupters.   These disrupters are so smart in turning business upside down, that it has become a reality that they can over a relatively short period of time close your business down.  In other sectors, your demise may take longer, but eventual death will hit you after years of inability to adapt to change.

Even government organisations who assumed they did not have “competition” are challenged.  In less than two decades, the private security industry is now double the size of the national police service, with many people trusting their security firms more than the police, so much so that many crimes are not even reported to the police anymore.  Another example of how the private sector disrupted government business has been the rapid growth of private postal services replacing the traditional government post office. This let to many government post offices closing down. However, the growth in electronic communication, smart phones and social media has now even disrupted the private “postal” services and today most people rather access the Internet via their smart phones. This means that Internet cafes will be the next casualty in the age of technological connectivity and disruption.

In the socio-political environment, the last decade was characterised by increased levels of conflict, terrorism and infighting.  Trust in politicians has decreased worldwide.  Now that President Trump has taken over from Barack Obama as the new president of the United States of America, one of the leading nations of the world, the level of uncertainty is expected to increase. The weekend of his inauguration has been marked by protests throughout the USA and other parts of the world. Trump has been described as aggressive, abrupt, tough, ego-centric, erratic, narcissistic, racist, sexist, xenophobic, nationalist, populist, nepotistic, materialistic and many other similar terms used to refer to him as “the most unpresidential president” at best or even “unfit for office” at worst.

As an inexperienced politician coming from a business background into politics and government, Trump has disrupted American and international politics.  His pro-Russian and anti-China stance may test his political acumen and further disrupt the global political landscape.

Trump has not yet shown any signs of diplomacy and patience, and while being skilled in risk-taking from a business perspective, it is uncertain if he will be able to make this transition to a respected political leader.   Whether he will execute some of his controversial election promises such as the Mexican wall, controlling immigration and religious groups, and fighting terrorism in the pursuit of “Making America great again” remains to be seen.  The reality is that financial markets don’t respond well to uncertainty and radical political change, unless if these changes drive innovation,  economic growth and socio-political stability.   Moreover, it is also clear that while the World Economic Forum in Davos highlighted inequality as the top challenge world-wide facing political and economic leaders, this issue is not expected to be a main priority for the new American government under Trump’s leadership.

Back home, South Africans are anxious to see how the Trump presidency will affect us.  His anti-Africa rhetoric does not instil hope for improved African-American political and business relationships.  Also, the level of uncertainty within our own socio-economic and political landscape is expected to continue.  With President Zuma’s succession battle gaining momentum, including the uncertainty surrounding the last two years before the next national elections in 2019, a bumpy road is expected.  The current low economic growth, high level of unemployment fuelling political instability, coupled with increasing levels of corruption in government and the private sector and turmoil in the higher education sector, the rest of 2017 may be challenging indeed.

Business leaders, human resource directors and talent managers are expected to continue working towards the achievement of business objectives despite the uncertainty in the broader business environment.  Despite the high level of uncertainty, the need to navigate change and building human capital will remain a top priority in business this year.   The ability to be resilient when dealing with uncertainty and to keep on giving direction, leveraging talent and engaging staff and other stakeholders while entering unchartered territories in an increasing uncertain and volatile business environment will be a key capability for survival and success this year.  Hence, the only thing we can be certain of this year is uncertainty.


Marius Meyer is CEO of the SA Board for People Practices (SABPP).

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Marius Meyer is CEO of the SA Board for People Practices (SABPP), the professional body for HR practitioners and Education and Training Quality Assurance Body for HR in South Africa.


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