Pillar 4: Systems and network thinking

By Professor Alwyn Louw; President: Monash South Africa

Given the levels of super-complexity that will be ushered in by The Fourth Industrial Revolution, a fundamental change in the way humans think and work is non-negotiable – and universities need to lead the charge. For Monash South Africa, delivering on this responsibility begins with a fundamental shift in macro curriculum to ensure that the learning delivered to students aligns with the key drivers of this fourth revolution, namely technology, innovation-based problem solving, manufacturing-driven thinking, resource management, and the ability to establish and manage new systems and processes.

At Monash South Africa, we believe that effectively preparing the employee of tomorrow to thrive and, more importantly, lead in this challenging and fast-changing world of work requires learning interventions built on the following four pillars:

  1. Appropriate skills to leverage dynamic knowledge
  2. The right attitude towards constant change
  3. Awareness of, and sensitivity to, the greater social context
  4. Orientation towards systems and networks thinking

In the previous articles we looked at the need for education outcomes to include the right skills, attitude and an awareness of social context. In this article, we investigate the importance of orientating students towards systems and networks thinking.

As the impact of the fourth industrial revolution is increasingly felt across the world, employees, business leaders and social influencers will need to undergo massive paradigm shifts in order to thrive and indeed simply to ensure that they, their businesses and their communities survive.

While it is one thing to have the skills to effectively process and leverage fast-changing information and knowledge, it will become increasingly futile to do so in isolation. In the years and decades to come, the way we work as organisations, industries and societies will increasingly move away from the historical focus on individual actions, specific tasks and clearly defined job functions. Instead, in order to be fully functioning and effective employees or members of society, we will need to understand the interdependence of all things, recognise the need for reciprocity, and embrace the fact that we live and function in a world of systems and networks.

Understanding the systems nature of the world is the first vital step in being able to operate effectively within those systems and identify the choices and opportunities they present to leverage information and knowledge to deliver socially advantageous outcomes. By helping students to understand this systems-based reality, tertiary institutions will massively multiply the value of the learning they provide. That’s because graduates will leave their learning institutions with insight into the highly circular nature of the world in which they live and work, the natural laws that govern those systems, and a heightened awareness of the role they must play in applying their skills and talents to help create the conditions in which systems can deliver maximum benefit.

In tandem with the greater awareness of their social context, as discussed in the previous article, this systems orientation has the potential to produce high-performing employees, managers and leaders who understand that their work is about more than merely doing a job – it’s about shaping the future.

As tertiary education institutions, embracing these four pillars of appropriate skills, correct attitudes, contextual awareness and systems orientation, and integrating them into higher education curricula are the first important steps towards delivering on our higher order responsibility.

The bottom line is that the universities of the world are no longer in the business of just producing graduates. We have a social and moral imperative to produce leaders who possess the abilities, understanding, awareness and moral compasses required to make the world better for everyone.