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Joe Makhafola sat down for a chat with Prof. Nhlanhla B.W. Mlitwa–a digital transformation and innovation champion and research impact advocate at the UNISA Graduate School of Business Leadership–to uncover his wisdom beyond the academic world

From being a bank official working on data capture and credit control to becoming a professor at the Graduate School of Business Leadership (SBL), a college within the University of South Africa (UNISA), it has been an interesting journey for Prof. Nhlanhla B.W. Mlitwa.

UNISA is the largest open distance learning institution in Africa and the longest-standing distance education dedicated university in the world.

The university considers itself as a national treasure with a global reach, dating back to its founding roots in 1873 when the University of the Cape of Good Hope was founded before it later moved to Pretoria—transitioning into the UNISA identity as we have come to know it today.

For Nhlanhla Wilton Zikalala, as he was known under his mother’s maiden name, many with foresight could detect from early signs a potential for greater things, but none could predict exactly what could become of a rural boy of modest social standing. Let alone the full professorship that has now become an international asset.

Following his Licentiate Diploma in Bank Management in the 1990s, Prof. Mlitwa went on to establish himself by obtaining his degree at UCT, where he was equally active in student politics, becoming the deputy president of the Student Representative Council (SRC) and residence sub-warden at Woolsack residence during his undergraduate years.

He is deeply committed to sustainable development and has led multiple socio-technical research initiatives. He has authored numerous articles and books, the majority of which reflect ground-breaking work in Computer Science, Information Systems, and Information and Communications Technology for Development (ICT4D), also known as the practice of using technology to advance innovative transformations across the socio-technical, private, business, and public contextual platforms.

He has professed to have a multiplier effect in his craft, as he impacts the way you lead as a student. As Kij Johnson said: “Some people change the world. And some people change the people who change the world.” That’s Prof. Mlitwa.

The plight of small business

In his beyond-the-academia approach, he published a paper in 2021 titled, ‘Academic richness to guide sustainability of small to medium enterprises (SMEs) within business training programmes in emerging economies: a South African higher education context’.

He and his learned colleague observed that the SME failure rate remains high in most of the developing world. Smaller enterprises seem to miss a competitive edge in their respective developing markets. Incompatible management skills, together with non-competitive business acumen, emerge as key explanations. The status quo thus calls into question the curriculum mix and focus of relevant training programmes in academia, the paper suggested.

This research contribution follows a practice-induced paper with his Ph.D candidate (Wilson Sakpere) on technology innovation, ‘Towards an efficient indoor navigation system: a near field communication approach’. This paper is published in the Journal of Engineering, Technology, and Design (JEDT), with a focus on devising practical solutions to solving signal connectivity issues in access and signal-challenged environments such as underground and indoor spaces.

In his argument, Prof. Mlitwa (Mlita) emphasises the urgency of conducting practical solution-seeking research for the greater benefit of humankind.

His information systems background comes in handy for relevance in his digital transformation discipline, and more so now that he is the Chairperson of the IT Committee at the School of Business Leadership.

Shaping the future

“Research leadership responsibilities include reviving the research capacity of the college. In supervising PG research projects, people like myself should move beyond just teaching and researching for the sake of doing so into a practice of contextual relevance, with tangible impacts and life-long learning as its core. In this discourse, the engaged scholarship ethos, co-creative philosophies, and trans-disciplinary approaches to impactful transformations be it economic, socio-technical (in the digital transformation sense), or even political, should be embraced in the new impact-focused research order,” he says.

“Secondly, creating ethically compliant policies, frameworks, and models of good scientific standing, then potently implementing these policies is the gist of impactful research. Aspects of quality assurance, responsible governance, ethical compliance, and general accountability cannot be adequately emphasised in this respect.

“From a research perspective, almost all universities are now going the engagement scholarship route. Here, it’s not just about research and teaching, but also the impact your business school is making on the community. What is a community, and which community are we talking about, one might ask? Communities can be diversified according to the respective discipline in which an institution conducts its teaching and learning activities. There would be a (i) scientific finance community, and a (ii) finance community of practice. The same goes with the respective fields of technology, engineering, healthcare, agriculture, and all other faculties and disciplines as the offerings of a respective institution may accommodate.”

As things evolve in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and the world of technology, so does the world of business.

Change has gained momentum

The professor uses the analogy of how, back in the day, trains used to run on coal. When water is heated, it transforms into an invisible vapour known as steam. Inside the boiler, the volume of water expands as it converts to steam, resulting in high pressure. The expansion of steam pushes the pistons that connect to the locomotive’s driving wheels.

In the first-world cities such as Madrid or Paris of today, long-distance trains between cities are increasingly gaining momentum for their efficiency in terms of time, cost, safety, and comfort. On speed capacity and safety, they can travel between 250 and over 450km/hour, taking about 7.5 hours in the 933.7km distance between Madrid (Spain) and Montpellier (France), or 3.3 hours in the 748km distance between Paris and Montpellier (France).

A nuclear physicist at Montpellier University highlights the essence of exploiting nuclear power as a powerful, clean energy source for advanced power solutions behind bullet trains. Obviously, other than eliminating the need to stop for refueling or for frequent traffic lights, with an advantage of over 90% immunity to traffic congestion and related jams, costly and environmentally unfriendly fossil energy hazards are avoided. It gives hope for clean and safe travel solutions in the equivalent distances between Johannesburg and Cape Town given the loadshedding nightmares, in the event that we appreciate possibilities and exploit technologically innovative opportunities.

The buzzword here is efficiency.

“I am just demonstrating that when we become purpose-focused, our research and scholarship exploits cannot remain business as usual. The way people publish papers or speak at conferences, whatever you do, must speak to the industry you are in, they must learn new ways, the capacity to innovate. South Africa has a lot of development challenges, especially in rural areas. But from where I sit, it is not problems, it is opportunities for thinkers, for industry principals, and for technology innovators to exploit transformative changes for the better,” he says.

Relevance to national development

South Africa is ranked 42nd out of 85 countries (41 in 2021)—scores poorly for quality of life, power, and social purpose, according to a rankings and analysis project by US News & World Report, Y&R’s BAV Group, and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. At the same time, we seem to perform well in other areas. We are currently third in the world in terms of alcohol consumption per capita.

The grey listing, dwindling investor confidence, poverty, crime, unemployment, and government debt is expected to reach 70.10% of GDP by the end of 2023, according to Trading Economics global macro models and analysts’ expectations. The macro and micro-environmental factors are too many to mention. We need more Prof. Mlitwas to tackle this widespread pandemic.

“South Africa is a great destination in many respects, from tourism to investment, with a wealth of resources and competencies to support desired levels of development and growth. For how long should the bad be allowed to outweigh the good? It is through such interventions that we may turn the corner, provided that the abundant research potential can be channelled toward potential possibilities,” he says.

“A combination of actions likely to yield desired results would be strategic partnerships between research institutions and local, regional, and continental innovators, as well as off-shore multinational corporations and development institutions.

“Some practical questions need to be asked now that we are almost 30 years into democracy. We don’t exist in isolation as a Business School. The knowledge we generate for industries must be practical and revolutionary within the context in which we operate. Isolated individual wisdom has fallen short of desired levels of impact in our brief scientific history.”

Prof. Mlitwa (Mlita) says that transformative innovations must speak to our own environment. He feels the urge to co-create a conducive environment for practical impacts with like-minded individuals in his forward-thinking research environment.

“Clearly, having some of the best policies in the world is good, but not enough. For, but with little or no implementation (if not narrow interest skewed implementations). I doubt that we have affordability problems. Neither do we have capacity shortages, but our development implementation approaches remain suspect—relative to the realisation of our desired ends,” he adds.

The future can be bright

The ideals of the National Systems of Innovation in 1996 were to channel research towards tangible, impactful research innovations across the board. Over 20 years later, outcomes have been mixed, albeit minimal, with no account of desired impacts. Whether the future will be bright remains a patriotic, but exaggerated wish that should plausibly be presented as a potential probability that with the potent shaping of our research futures—our research, innovation, and development future can” be bright. With a revised impact-focused approach, there is every reason for optimism.

The reasoning is simple and straightforward. Like most research institutions, UNISA operates in a ‘global village’. Internationalisation is the cornerstone of fostering cooperation, collaboration, integration of cultures and ideas, and innovation to advance teaching and learning, community engagement, research, scholarship, growth, and development. Therefore, higher education has become more international, allowing for cross-border collaborations.

Prof. Mlitwa (Mlita) is adamant that doing the right things at the right time is useful for these ideals but hardly adequate. To this end, shaping the perspectives of the emerging research under current supervision is a way to shape the futures, for future continuity.

“With a focus on Business Schools, they must find mechanisms to work with their communities. Businesses in this case. Let us innovate, aggregate, and guide the exploitation of our comparative advantage into a competitive advantage for a technologically capable, globally competitive economic and social environment. Let us find ways of advancing technological innovations for notable social and business impacts. Let us keep a healthy balance between maximizing profits and social responsibilities,” he concludes.

Joe Makhafola is the CEO of Boka Katlego and a strategic marketing and communication specialist.