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The duality of hats: A pracademic perspective

The duality of hats - A pracademic perspective

At a recent IMM Graduate School forum, SEAN McCOY facilitated the Marketing the Future sessions as master of ceremonies, channelling an exciting line-up of speakers on the subject of “unlocking the human element in the digital era”. It was here that the topic of the “pracademic” arose.

While used fairly informally, the term ‘pracademic’ triggered some interesting discussions and prompted this article to offer a perspective on what is meant by the description and how it applies to higher learning and the world of work, relevant to both marketing and the business sector generally.

During the forum, I introduced myself as a “pracademic”. It seemed like an apt description for a moderator who straddled the IMM as the host organisation and Nedbank as the sponsor. The intent was to blend the perspectives of a learning institution with those of a leading financial services brand and full-service bank.

This duality of hats, so to speak, was examined through the perspective of either filter to assess whether they were really far apart in a changing business landscape, and how we could ensure they remain integrated while addressing the challenges facing us today in academia and business holistically.

Through the eyes of an academic

From an academic dimension, the fundamental requirement in the broader marketing and business context is to teach students and prepare them for the world of work. This sounds simple but is more challenging as we delve into the detail.

The world of work is changing and evolving. With the advent of artificial intelligence (AI) and the 4th industrial revolution (4IR), higher education has to embrace change. This has impacted on curriculum content and relevance as well as channels of content delivery. It has even redefined and reinvented their understanding of the job market – how do you equip students to enter the workplace and take on jobs that are not clear or even known yet?

This latter point talks to the sentiment from some employers that students entering the world of work are ill-equipped and not remotely ready for what the new environment requires of them. This naturally leads to a dearth of talent for organisations and also immense frustration and disillusionment for students. Workplace change has translated directly into disruptive educational models challenging conventional modes and institutions. A case in point is Udemy, a platform brand offering a marketplace connecting instructors and students looking to improve specific skills.

This is hyper-focused content, based on direct and immediate workplace needs, and offers true affordability. That it is disruptive is evidenced by leading organisations such as VW, Booking.com and Adidas enrolling employees as part of their skills development and learning process, in some cases with module specific learning pitched at a minimal fee of the equivalent of R100.

Another example of dramatic shifts in curricula is the Italian online university, eCampus that recently launched a three-year programme to earn a degree in social media influencing, an industry that is today reported to be worth $2.4 billion and something that simply did not exist a few years ago. Change is indeed the only constant.

Higher learning disruption notwithstanding, the academic still has a vital role to play in teaching critical thinking, helping students to apply learned theoretical principles and driving discourse that challenges the way we see the world while seeking new paradigms and solutions. The rigour of research should not be forgotten either – after all, this plays an essential role in advancing theory, not just for the benefit of academics, but if correctly applied, as has been the case in the past, enables quantum advances in thinking that has implications for practitioners too.

Thankfully, the IMM Graduate School is a dynamic and challenging institution that does look at the higher education model constantly and evaluate new ways of doing things. It interacts regularly with industry players through advisory channels and workshops and it places great emphasis on practical learning and ensuring fit-for-purpose students well equipped for the workplace who can adjust and deliver at the requisite pace.

The teaching faculty, by and large, are pracademics by implication and this ensures that programme content delivers a balance of cognitive skill and variety, while being fact-based, driving critical evaluation and ensuring sound problem-solving skills, all crucial criteria for the world of work.

 Through the lens of a practitioner

The practitioner perspective is, of course, entirely grounded in the reality of business and what it takes to implement strategies daily, whether they be greater business strategies or tactical marketing ones. This often proposes one of the biggest disconnects between the world of academia and that of business – the capacity to translate theory into commercial action and successful implementation.

As much as higher learning is undergoing disruption and digital transformation, the world of business has experienced this with break-neck speed and impact. The disruptive case studies of Netflix, Uber and Airbnb are already old and represent the norm today. Whole industry segments are being eroded or disintermediated and most organisations are grappling with what AI and 4IR mean to their businesses.

Increased complexity and ambiguity Platform brands are emerging in many industry sectors and are simply redefining business models and the way whole industries work. This has implications for businesspeople and marketers alike. As we saw during the Marketing the Future discussion, this is driving a number of changes which include increased complexity and ambiguity in this world of redefined connectivity, borderlessness and new interdependencies as well as a shift in consumer and customer power through the increased capacity to demand experiences and switch market sentiment at the press of a button.

This challenges a purpose-led brand such as Nedbank, which aspires to use its money expertise to do good and is dynamic in the category of financial services. The intensified competition in the South African market through challenger brands like Capitec in the retail segment or new players like TymeBank, mean that standing still is not an option.

The likes of Discovery Bank and their innovative behavioural business model will likely perpetuate the competition and force a plethora of new initiatives in the category. Then there are the newer fintech players and propositions that supplement traditional competitors.

Leveraging insight to solve simulation and practical learning

Case study learning has become a vital dimension of equipping students today and the practitioner is able to leverage this insight and ensure that real problem-solving simulation and practical learning does take place. Well executed, this individual straddles both educational and industry requirements as a pracademic.

Sector-specific exposure can be amplified across markets. For example, taking our involvement as HKLM in the Nedbank brand, we supplement category insight and learning in markets such as Ethiopia, having rebranded the Bank of Abyssinia in 2018 and several banks and financial services organisations in West Africa over the years, most notably in Nigeria.

This brings rich experience and pan-African perspective to the unique challenges of our continent. Of course, these also traverse other industry sectors and play out in the likes of telecommunications, mining, hospitality, higher education and professional services, to name a few. The ability of the practitioner to share these learnings with students and research scholars is invaluable.

A fusion of the two

Cycling these insights and perspectives between academia and practice is the domain of the pracademic. An individual who can understand the development needs of higher education and the dreams and aspirations of students’ intent on growing and taking up their rightful place in business, is critical to economic growth and future business leadership development.

So, too, is an individual who understands the needs and pressures of the business world and its dire demand for talent that can help build sustainable business and competitive advantage. The reality of business is not at odds with academia. The challenge that exists is that there needs to be greater interaction and collaboration between the two to ensure that higher education remains fit for purpose and industry has the talent pool available to drive growth and economic prosperity for all – an imperative in South Africa and across the continent. Welcome to another newly defined role – the pracademic.