Wits appoints ICT industry leader to head up new Chair in Digital Business
World-renowned digitisation thought leader to lead WBS/ Telkom Chair in Digital Business
The Wits Business School (WBS) has appointed Professor Brian Armstrong, one of the foremost ICT industry leaders in South Africa, to head up the new WBS/Telkom Chair in Digital Business, established in 2016 and the first of its kind in Africa.
Armstrong has more than 30 years of top level management experience in Telecommunications, IT, technology R&D and systems engineering, both in South Africa and abroad. He is widely regarded as a thought leader in digitalisation, convergence and business strategy.
After 15 years at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), where he was involved in ICT research and development (R&D), he joined British Telecoms (BT) Global Services as Vice President: Middle East and Africa. He then joined Telkom in 2010 and was there until March 2017, when he resigned as Chief Commercial Officer.
Armstrong, who describes himself, interchangeably, as a “business scientist” and a “scientific businessman” has a passion for the science behind digitilisation, and how it applies to the business context from a business model/ strategy point of view.
“In the past five years or so, there has been much hype around ‘digitalisation’. But while it is a very real part of our world, and applies to every aspect of business, it is a concept that is overtraded but under-researched. Most of the information we have about digitalisation is anecdotal – there is no body of knowledge available which is underpinned by rigorous academic research,” says Armstrong.
It is for this reason that WBS established the Chair in Digital Business in May last year through a five-year funding commitment from Telkom.
“It is an honour to have someone of Brian’s standing in the telecoms industry to lead this important portfolio. With his knowledge of the industry, his passion for the subject of digitilisation and its transformative capacity in all aspects of business and society, I cannot think of a better person for the job,” says Kalu Ojah, Professor of Finance and Deputy Head of School of WBS.
The Chair in Digital Business is a first for South Africa and the continent and will ensure that WBS as a business school located in the economic heart of Africa, are at the forefront of delivering important research and relevant programmes that are essential for doing business in today’s digitised world.
It will not only contribute to the economy by developing essential skills that will boost employment and encourage start-ups, but it responds directly to the Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy adopted by the African Union in 2014 that aims to reposition the continent as a collection of technology-driven economies, ensuring the sustainable growth of the countries within.
WBS also plans to conduct research in the field of digital business in Africa, and advance awareness of digital business and readiness by engaging with business, government and communities.
“The Chair in Digital Business is a welcome addition to Wits’ suite of data science and big data courses and research, as well as to our new innovation hub, the Wits Tshimologong Digital Innovation Precinct in Braamfontein. The development of a successful technology ecosystem is crucial to economic growth and international competitiveness, and I have no doubt that these cutting edge offerings will be central to this,” says Professor Adam Habib, Wits Vice-Chancellor and Principal.
The Chair will ensure that WBS is at the forefront of developing important research as well as teaching programmes that are essential for doing business in today’s digital world. In addition to its initial R32,7 million funding over five years, Telkom is creating a black internship programme for WBS students, and will also offer free digital business training to its own staff.
The ‘flagship’ programme of the Chair will be a masters degree in Digital Business, but there will be other offerings, including a postgraduate diploma, and online and executive education courses.
Armstrong says his vision for the Chair is threefold: to be a centre of excellence in digital business in South Africa and Africa, to become fully sustainable, and to have an impact on society.
“New and rigorously conducted research will underpin curriculum development, and there will be exciting opportunities for people to participate and share in this research. Our outputs must be seen and felt in our society; the Chair must have an impact on the South African and African business communities.”
“There have been significant changes in digital business, and this role affords me the opportunity to explore the industry through research while bringing to the table my practical, business experience. Wits was my first choice because it’s a top research institution, and likewise WBS, which is at the forefront of emerging market research and shares my vision for the Chair,” says Armstrong.
Armstrong completed his BSc (Eng) and MSc (Eng) at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1982 and 1984 respectively, and obtained his PhD from University College London in 1992.
Before joining Wits in July 2017, he was a key part of the leadership team which has been credited with turning Telkom around, in the capacity of Group Chief Operating Officer and Group Chief Commercial Officer. In his time with Telkom he also revived the ailing Telkom Business unit, and conceived and led the acquisition of BCX and its integration into the group. He was also responsible for the group’s retail unit, as well as leading group strategy and transformation activities.
Before joining Telkom in 2010 Brian was BT’s Vice President for Middle East and Africa with overall responsibility to oversee and grow BT’s activities across the region. Before that his work experience includes South Africa’s CSIR, ultimately as the Director of the Division for Information and Communications Technology; and South African listed ICT services group AST (now Gijima), as Managing Director of AST Networks.
His professional interests include business leadership, digitalisation, strategic change leadership and management, corporate entrepreneurship, organisational design, multinational and multicultural business optimisation, and venture creation.
Brian Armstrong is globally renowned as a thought leader in digitalisation. Photo: Wits University