Skills Development in a Data Driven Age: Insights From Oxford University

My career has always been characterised by me somewhat consciously positioning myself at the intersection of academia, business practice and public policy. On occasion, I would find myself walking more concertedly down one of those avenues but always with the view of returning back to that intersection because that’s where I have always found myself to be the happiest. Having now returned from a very scenic and enriching journey down the avenue of academia, I find my self back at that intersection with deeper insights and an extended line of sight particularly in relation to the way business education functions but more importantly how business education tends to malfunction too.


I recently came across an article published in the Journal of Business Education in 1937 by a scholar called Paul Lomax and in the article he describes the almost tangible disconnect between education and practice with the result being that graduates leave intuitions of higher learning sometimes hopelessly unprepared for the personal and professional challenges of working life. Some 80 years later if we fast forward to 2018; anyone who’s ever attended a business education conference would tell you that the major concern of the day lies in the disconnect between what is taught and what needs to be taught. Amid the illusion of progress one could argue that business education hasn’t changed very much at all.

All of us here know the stories of industry giants like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs who all disregarded formal education to become massively successful in business. This notion of business success without formal education is something I tested with my colleagues at Oxford and whether it was the US, the UK, Singapore, China, Brazil or just about any country on Earth, the most successful and influential people known to us were people with little or no formal business training. In fact, if we only look into our small communities, this notion holds true as well. If we contrast this to the stories of other industry giants like Larry Page or Sergey Brin, these are individuals who attained great business success whilst leveraging of their formal education. The consideration that then comes to fore doesn’t lie in whether formal education is useful or not but instead, the more interesting question is what are the skills needed to excel in business, whether they are acquired from formal education or not.

This is an important question in today’s data-driven age and with the advent of the fourth industrial revolution we regularly read about how blockchain technology, artificial intelligence or virtual reality is changing the business landscape. In response we seem to be left wondering where it is we should be deploying our efforts to remain relevant and where do we deploy our efforts as far as skills development and enrichment is concerned. There typically 2 categories that we all are part of. The first relates to those individuals, usually from the younger generation, who have the time, resources and interest in building a technology focussed career. In this instance, I would encourage you to immerse yourself into study and practice; and spend the years honing your craft to be the best that you could possibly become. The second category is where I suspect most of us belong to, where we have built careers or established businesses outside of tech-focused initiatives and are now conscious of leveraging technology in order to take our business or professional offerings to a new level. Accordingly, I believe that it is of crucial importance that we obtain good exposure and a functional understanding of the technologies that are driving progress today.


The idea to is to have sufficient knowledge to be able to merge the basic understanding of new technologies with the deep understanding of your profession or industry sector. The result should be that while you may not be able to build a new platform yourself, you will definitely be positioned to initiate, manage, supervise and control its development which in my view is a far more important skill than technical skills in isolation.

The question then arises – in order to initiate, manage, supervise and control innovative processes, what are the skills that will hold you in good stead. Simply put, they are the skills that are not in direct competition with a machine. At the president’s investment conference in Sandton recently, the founder and former chairman of the Alibaba group (and incidentally, China’s richest person), said that in building the new generation, we need to make them aware that they cannot compete with technology – machines are faster, smarter and more efficient. And so, what do we do to remain relevant? The answer lies in strengthening our innate human-based skills, to differentiate ourselves with qualities that can never be replicated by technology – the ability to resolve conflict pragmatically, the ability to utilise discretion in choosing business partners, the ability to motivate and grow your staff, the ability to build and sustain relationships over time, the ability to strengthen teams and coordinate tasks.

These soft skills have stood the test of time and whether the leading technology of the day was the radio, the television or the computer, these are skills that lead and sustained principled progress. I call for three points of action. The first is to expose yourself to reading on developments in the technology world and thereafter to internally assess to what extent you understand the respective functionality of different technology classes. You should then educate yourself whether its through family members, online courses or physical training,  there are many sources of learning that you can explore. Lastly, and this is the most important in my view, particularly for the young generation, skill yourself in the dynamics of human interaction through soft skills development. Focus on things like business etiquette and maintaining a respectable online presence. Learn how to build and leverage of relationships in order to create shared value. In a world obsessed with technology, set yourself apart by being someone obsessed with humanity instead because that’s where the true value lies.

Zafeer Nagdee

CEO – Nacademy

Senior Lecturer – University of Johannesburg