South African businesses have a key role to play in innovating social transformation in South Africa, according to African Bank Investments Ltd (ABIL) executive director Tami Sokutu, but this needs to be more than paying lip service to regulatory compliance requirements.
“Transformation is a very real thing,” says Sokutu. “Walk into any office in the country and you'll see people from amazingly different cultures and backgrounds working together. This is the South African miracle, but it needs to be taken considerably further if the country is going to move to the next level of growth – socially and economically.”
Sokutu says true cross-cultural understanding can have an enormous benefit on an organisation's operational efficiency and productivity. “People who are proactively striving to connect, understand each other and to share important social information will work better as a team, in pressure situations. There's no doubt about that. There’s also value in recognizing that diversity brings innovation and differentiated thought.”
One of the key challenges Sokutu sees is that of the human experience of social change. It is one thing to prescribe employment equity targets and to run regular team building exercises, and quite another to foster a work environment where people relate to each beyond work functions. And it is here, according to Sokutu, that the real benefits of transformation lie.
“South Africans have become polite as a people. There is a certain way to interact and a certain language that one uses in a public or office space. Businesses need to be careful, however, that they don't just operate on this surface level. There is an experiential reality behind the politeness that South African businesses and ordinary citizens still need to deal with.”
Real and sustainable social change will come when different social groups internalise the need to understand each other’s cultures, likes and dislikes and taboos, he says. This goes beyond just co-existing in the workplace for eight hours a day. It is about creating a real South African cross-cultural way of life.
The so-called 'experience economy' – an economic environment where price and product parity mean that the quality of the human experience that surrounds brand interactions is the key to competitive advantage – is central to Sokutu's point.
He believes that the companies that manage and develop a work environment where staff are truly empathetic to each others' cultures will also be best positioned for profit in the experience economy – and that goes for South Africa's presence on the global stage as well.
“South Africa is already a compelling place to do business in and to visit,” he says. “But there is some distance to go before South Africans really begin to empathise and understand each other across cultural barriers. If we can get this right – and business is in a prime position to drive the process – the country will be irresistible as a global economic and social force.”
In order to make these changes, Sokutu has some advice: “The key is to dig into the reality of transformation, and to offer staff within a company the opportunity to actually experience new cultures, ways of thinking and doing business. Most often this means being bold enough to seek engagements well outside the scope of the office park, or by engaging with unexpected cultural groups within the office environment.
"Regardless of your business, there is enormous wealth to be gained by pushing cultural boundaries in unexpected directions. I think decision makers would be surprised by just how much dynamism and value they could bring to their organisations by being brave enough to explore new cultural realms and to understand that innovation means thinking beyond the box.”