by Evans Manyonga

The Fourth Industrial Revolution

Professor Steyn is at the centre of the future


The Fourth Industrial Revolution is underway, in full force. Forget the doom and gloom around innovation, technology and artificial intelligence (AI). The world is constantly in flux and fighting against the future is as good as fighting the inevitable. Those who don’t swim with the tide will sink in the deep waters.

Cranefield College, a market leader in quality education, has streamlined its courses to ensure students and employers are at the core of all their offerings. The man driving Cranefield steadily and ahead of time is its Principal and founder, Professor Pieter Steyn an Engineer and Academic, who comes from a long line of engineers, most notably, Steyn’s great-great-grandfather, Douwe Gerbrandtz Steyn, who built the Castle of Good Hope in 1668.

“I started my career in a very humble way; I enrolled myself as an apprentice. I did a four-year apprenticeship and while I was doing my third- and fourth-year apprenticeship I also completed my first-year engineering at the University of Pretoria with evening classes. ISCOR was kind to us, they gave us one afternoon per week to attend the lab work that the university only offered in the afternoons. If I could have my career over, that would be where I would start again because I learnt a lot as an apprentice. When you work with people at that level, you gain valuable human experience besides the technical. After qualifying as an Engineer, I established the consulting engineering firm, Steyn and Van Rensburg. We did some major projects—like Bank City in Johannesburg, Standard Bank Johannesburg, the well-known Mandela Square and many shopping centres throughout Southern Africa”, Prof. Steyn says.

Continuous learning and an appreciation of the opportunities Professor Steyn has been given are continuous themes in our interview. The first year he studied towards his engineering degree was done through night school and this provided him with a unique learning experience.

“Night school was my first-year engineering, then for my second, third and fourth year, I received a bursary from ISCOR, thus, for my second, third and fourth year, I went full-time to complete my studies at the University of Pretoria. I worked at ISCOR for a while, then went on to start the consulting engineering firm which still exists today. Then the University of South Africa contacted me and offered me a job, which I took. I then established the production operations management field of study for the Business Economics Department. I received my doctorate, which is a DCom, as a relatively young man. After engineering, I also completed an MBA at the University of Pretoria,” he explains.

Having worked for 19 years for Unisa, he subsequently joined the Pretoria University Business School (now GIBS).

“In my career as an academic, I taught at both the engineering school as well as the business school. Additionally, we continued with the consulting engineering firm and did all those major projects mentioned earlier—I learnt a lot from that as well,” he says.

Steyn discusses more about himself, Cranefield College and the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

At times, we get academics who are actually not engaged in the field and it is a problem.

Do you agree with this perception?

Yes, because they don’t understand the practical side of things. Having established the business helps you because you understand not only how to establish the business but also how to run it—from what’s important, all the way to strategising. I learnt a lot from my MBA and the doctorate was highly specialised in production operations and developing algorithms, which is why I have a better understanding of artificial intelligence.

You are quite versatile. From there, how did you proceed?

I did other projects, for example, in Swaziland I chaired the commission of enquiry into the governance of all the government departments and their pay system, which was very interesting. In 1994, with the experience I gained in Swaziland behind me, I assisted the Gauteng Provincial Government’s welfare department in their transformation and change initiative from the old to the new. That was a marvellous experience.

Please could you provide us with a bit more detail on what that experience was like in Gauteng?

We did a good job. We did a total transformation plan and the smart thing we did, which I learnt from Swaziland, is we brought all the non-governmental welfare organisations, the labour unions and, of course, the government officials on board, so we received input from everyone. We consulted with everyone and that helped me immensely in terms of developing Cranefield’s educational programmes at a later stage. In 1998, when I retired at an early age from the University of Pretoria, I started Cranefield. It will be 21 years old this year (2019).

When you moved from the University of Pretoria, what made you decide to establish Cranefield College? What was the vision behind the college?

At the time, I knew that there was a change coming, I had picked up on the evolution of technology that was approaching. In my own research, I picked up the work that the Ohio State University did research on. Together with the American procurement association, they realised that supply chains were going cross-functional and I picked up that move and soon realised that we were moving into a Fourth Industrial Revolution. There was no doubt in my mind that it would bring major change. I also realised, due to my MBA experience and having taught at an MBA school, that even the MBA schools would have to change in future because the world was going to move away from bureaucratic structures. Those structures were going to become cross-functional, meaning you would have to apply project and programme management. I also realised that, in future, organisations will have to undergo a major transformation. Fortunately, both the Swaziland and the Gauteng projects were essentially about transformation and change. I also realised that the private and public sector organisations would have to move in that direction from bureaucracy to cross-functional structures.

You also had the advantage of having the perspective of the private and public sectors. Did that open your mind substantially in terms of where things are headed?

That indeed helped a lot, and then I published a very interesting article in April 2001. The article was entitled: Managing organisations through projects and programmes, the new economy approach. In it, I essentially not only predicted but I gave a business model of how you should then manage the cross-functional organisation because your supply chains are going cross-functional, which I had picked up from the Ohio State Research. In addition, the projects were already being managed cross-functionally, the whole organisational value chain changed. I realised that there was going to be a massive need in the market for that kind of leadership, management and governance teaching and that transformational change would take place. Thus, I started Cranefield. The entire goal of forming Cranefield was to establish an academic system enabling the management of change from bureaucracy to cross-functionality, which is your knowledge-based learning organisation that operates cross-functionally. It’s not only the transformation from bureaucracy to that, it also comes down to then leading, managing and governing that, and providing a proper educational system on how one should lead and manage those cross-functional types of organisations. All this happened not knowing that within about 10 years from then, the Fourth Industrial Revolution would come into full force. What is very interesting is that the model I developed at the time, I delivered at an International Project Management Association congress in Berlin in 2004—seven years before the German “Industrie 4.0” surfaced. After that lecture, many German industrialists came to me and even asked me to bring Cranefield to Germany because they felt what I had explained was exactly where the world was going. Being a distance learning educational institution enables us to service students from all over the world.

How have you established yourself in terms of following up on the map?

Over time, Cranefield College received a lot of exposure through the International Project Management Association. I also served on their research management board. I was a member of that for seven years and the chairperson at the time was Professor Brane Semolic from the University of Maribor in Slovenia. Cranefield is also an active member of the European-based research organisation, Lens Living Lab, founded by Prof. Semolic. He and I started conducting research together because our thinking was very similar, he also saw Industry 4.0 coming. It just so happened that we have published many articles on the subject in the last 20 years. One of these entitled “Collaboratism: A Solution to Declining Globalisation and Rising Protectionism” was published in the March 2017 edition of the America-based PM World Journal, one of the most respected journals in the world. We won the managing editor’s 2017 top award for that article.

What was the premise?

The premise was the Fourth Industrial Revolution and that globalisation is dead, and in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the focus is entirely on collaboration and virtual networks of partners. Organisations now and in future will only focus on their core competencies, they will bring in partner organisations to do those things for them that fall outside of their core competency and core business and that’s where the core networks and collaboration come from. In the Fourth Industrial Revolution, four things are affected the most. Firstly, customer expectations are changing massively, then product and service development are changing dramatically and products are now developed through virtual networks. Another major component of all this change is collaborative innovation, so innovation does not only happen in the one company but you bring other companies in to support and assist you with innovation. We all know innovation is, of course, the engine of capitalism. What we are saying also in that article is that, in the collaborative economy that we are living in now, organisations are automatically looking for partners. First, you look for the partner entity closest to you that can help you, then you will move into your region, then you will move nationally and if that doesn’t work for you, you go international to find a partner. Where you start is what we define as protectionism. This stimulates the growth of small and medium-sized enterprises as well as job creation in your immediate vicinity. The fourth component of this change is organisational forms.

New academics and visionaries are debating that, eventually, the world has to have a minimum wage to eradicate poverty, even for people who are not working. Thus, you have a wage that tries to level things up and ensure everyone has a way to survive. What are your thoughts on this?

As you can see, in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, technologies are increasing—and on a side note, change is not going to kill jobs because it has always improved the jobs. People are now being educated at higher levels and that helps them to get decent jobs, with the Fourth Industrial Revolution now ensuring working in virtual networks of partners and collaborating. The third thing I mentioned earlier is collaborative innovation and the fourth aspect is organisational forms. So, your business models are changing completely. They are all moving from having silo organisations to having cross-functional organisations. It’s all brought about by the Fourth Industrial Revolution, no doubt about that, and we are ready for that. If organisations want to stay on top, they have to transform and move away from the bureaucratic practices to virtual networks.

In other words, it’s not about cosmetic transformation, but the transformation from the back end of the system of organisations as well?

Indeed, because it’s also a paradigm shift, it’s a completely new way of thinking and that means the whole culture of organisations will change as well and move away from the old rules of bureaucracies to an open mindset. For transformational leadership, you require transformational leaders who know that there are two main aspects when it comes to leadership: the people, which is always the first, and the strategy, which is the second. Those are very important. When you look at the people side, good transformational leaders have to build trust if they want to motivate people to follow them and for the organisation to perform. In addition, they have to show massive support for people in the organisation, they have to encourage innovation and encourage virtual networks. We live in a “chaordic” environment where you have to make your decisions quickly to stay competitive.

In keeping with that line of thinking, what courses are you offering at Cranefield and what sets you apart from other institutions?

At this point in time, we are predominantly a postgraduate institution. We do have an advanced certificate that is entry level and accredited NQF Level 6. Students learn basic project management, general management and business management, those are the three subjects at that level. If you have those three subjects, you have the best foundation in the world to build on further. Then, we have an advanced diploma, which is NQF Level 8, and where we build on all these aspects. Now, we bring subjects like programme management, issues around transformation and how to manage transformation and change. Furthermore, the supply chain management then comes into play. Moving to the postgraduate diploma and Master’s degree, its strategy, transformational strategy because we believe in emergent strategy, not prescriptive strategy. With emergent strategy, you can move fast, you are continuously monitoring what is going on in your external and internal environment and you make changes as you go, and you have to be agile and flexible. In the new economy, you need to lead, create, implement and improve, these are the new management functions. You have to continually improve what you do, that is why we also teach quality management systems and total quality management to our students. One of our Master’s graduates is now the Managing Executive of ABSA Investment Management Services. He joined us from the bottom and now has this top job. I can tell you he is not the only one doing well. You asked what gives me the most satisfaction. I can tell you straight away it’s the progress that our students make once they have their qualifications. Another Master’s graduate from us is the Programme Director of Microsoft Global Consulting based in the United Arab Emirates.

What are the requirements to get into Cranefield?

The average age of our student is 38, which is probably amongst the highest in the world. This is because we are predominantly postgraduate. We are now busy introducing a BBA degree, it is still in the infant stage because it has to go through the Department of Education’s accreditation and registration process. That is a tedious process, but we are putting a bachelor’s degree in project and supply management in place. Our current students join us with bachelor’s degrees or other higher diplomas, or they receive recognition of prior learning—there is a process for that. We also offer a PhD. Due to our good standing and top recognition in Germany, we have already conferred three doctorates to Germans, and we have only been going with the doctorate for five years.

How many students do you have enrolled at the moment for the PhD?

About 50. Fortunately, we have very good staff because we only draw from the best.

What would you regard as the greatest success the college has had to date?

There are so many but the greatest success is our students that do so well, there are many of them in Africa, America, Europe and Australia. After all, why do you study? You study to be successful in your career and it gives us tremendous pleasure when we see how our students are coming up, even starting their own businesses. The biggest asset that our students get from us is being able to apply tomorrow what they learnt from us today and, of course, our teaching and learning are Fourth Industrial Revolution-based, preparing our students to perform in the new economy. Roughly 84% of our students are black and a lot of them are female—our diversity reflects the population of the country and there are many women.

Many people fear artificial intelligence. What are your thoughts in terms of artificial intelligence (AI) taking jobs and destroying lives?

As a consulting engineer, I’ve been involved with AI for a long time and there are a lot of installations that we designed incorporating it. Already in the 1980s, AI was brought in to lift operating systems. In my doctorate, I also developed algorithms, which are the basis of AI. As for killing jobs, that is all nonsense because if that were the case, the steam engine should never have been invented. Our PhD students are doing remarkable research on renewable energy.

For example, I asked one of our PhD graduates from last year to investigate disruptive technologies and where the future lies. He came up with something remarkable; there is a disruptive technology now, which is called “brilliant light”. The Americans invented it. Dr Randy Mills and his team have been working on this for 15 to 20 years already and it’s just about to make a commercial breakthrough. Water is turned into hydrogen and oxygen, and injected into a system that generates electricity extremely cheaply and cleanly. Here, you have a situation where creative innovation is solving the economic and ecological problems for us. You have to make things affordable if you want economies and jobs to grow. In this case, it will simultaneously serve to solve the global warming problem and the energy crises.

What are the dangers of failing to evolve with the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

Organisations who do not move to embrace it are going to lose their competitiveness and get kicked out of the market.

You touched on the importance of exceptional governance and transformational leadership. Would you like to comment further?

Bureaucracies will simply be unable to perform, they will need to transform and change to cross-functional structures that are programme-managed and guided by transformational leaders. This is why programme management has become so important, there is no way you can go cross-functional without programme-managed supply chains and project portfolios.

What goals have you set for yourself as the Principal of Cranefield? What do you see yourself achieving in the near future?

We should expand our postgraduate teaching and learning, especially the PhD. Fortunately, we do have the right tools for that. More research means more innovation and it is going to grow the economy.

However, we are also looking forward to expanding the undergraduate level and our short courses. We have already established a major menu of short courses. Many of them are Fourth Industrial Revolution-based. It is also important for us to teach our younger students how the Fourth Industrial Revolution works, how the selection of partners works, bringing the SMEs on board and growing SMEs so that we can grow the economy and jobs.

What’s your core function at Cranefield?

I would say we practice what we preach and I am a transformational leader myself. Over the years, I have transformed Cranefield’s educational material from having a bureaucracy character at the start, to having a knowledge-based learning organisation orientation. I believe a lot in emergent strategy, so I apply it.

I was very happy because I realised that as we moved forward, we needed technology ourselves if we wanted to improve the quality of our delivery and programme research. For that reason, we have established top technology in learner systems, both for administration as well as our teaching and learning.

We stream our classes live all over the world now, we do it in our auditorium but at the same time, it’s live streaming on the Internet all over the world. We also record classes for students who are in different timelines so they can watch it online when they can. Even if you attended the class live, you can go back and watch it again for an extended period of time. Moreover, everything is now paperless, so every student gets e-books and digital study guides.

How would you describe your leadership style?

Definitely participative and transformative. I am a transformational leader and I apply emergent strategy all the time.

What advice would you give to young people who are aspiring to be in leadership roles?

Come and study at Cranefield. You will learn that leaders have to focus on people and strategy, and leaders must fully understand that role modelling is very important.

Who are some of the role models that have inspired you in your career?

Steve Jobs. What I like about him is that he was not only a technologist but also a very good businessman, and he could combine the two.

Elon Musk is also in that bracket but I had a lot of respect for Steve Jobs because even after he left Apple and his replacements failed, he came back and fixed it.

And Nelson Mandela, he was a role model for all, and proved how important it is that a leader’s role modelling of preferred behaviour is important. We need that in organisational leaders, his humanistic style united people.

How do you successfully balance your personal and professional life?

It is always a difficult thing to do, but one must always make time for your family, that is the most important thing.

You have to be a role model of your family’s value system and beliefs. At the same time, be a role model for your children and support them. The professional side of your life helps you to support them financially.

Are you still with your partner from the engineering consulting firm?

Yes, as great friends. Although he and I have both retired from the firm—he last year, and I already before I left the University of Pretoria. When I retired, I left it to him and he ran it very successfully. He continued to act as Cranefield’s consulting engineer for all our technologies. 

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