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Tips, advice, and information for South African business owners

25 Feb

Avoiding Institutionalised Learning Disability

In last week’s national government budget speech, we learnt that Eskom will again be bailed out by treasury. It’s another year where SOEs will enjoy bail-outs in the billions, in this case, nearly R70 billion spread over three years. Apparently it’s a loan to be repaid by Eskom. Yeah, right.

The only slightly good news about this is that the bail-out comes with pseudo administrative curatorship of the state-owned enterprise (SOE). And this had something vital stand out for me. It’s the first significant attempt by government at fixing SOE management. It should have been done years ago with the first bail-outs.

The way I make sense of it is that, given government’s terrible appointments to SOE boards, it’s no surprise that other interventions in fixing the rot at SOEs are also slow or non-existent.

Taking a systemic view, I see this as a type of institutionalised learning disability. It shows up not only in the various failing SOEs, but in national government itself.

Related, we see a glaring contrast in the same budget speech between government’s SOE rescue and the budget for small business development, the latter being only R486 million. One is measured in billions while the other is in millions.

Despite the desperate need to grow the small business sector in South Africa, it’s clear, as usual, that government’s role and reach in improving small business will remain negligible. I’ve highlighted this issue previously, so re-stating this “fact” is obviously a stepping stone to my key point.

Not only is it patently necessary for almost all small business owners to look after themselves without state help, we also have a metaphor for modelling how to do that. I think the “lesson” for entrepreneurs from this year’s budget speech is this: beware the trap of an institutionalised learning disability. Here’s how I see it working…

When business is tough, like it is for Eskom, SAA and other SOEs, recognise that there are lessons available to learn. Tough times can’t be blamed entirely on external factors. Just like it is for SOEs, many of our business pains are caused by our own mistakes. If we keep getting the same pains, we ought to look inward. The solutions are often in learning how to make better decisions and, until this learning happens, we merely perpetuate a learning disability.

So don’t be like government. Don’t let hubris, pride, or fearing looking bad slow you down from getting outside help.

The good news is it’s not hard to learn in small doses. The “management police” at Eskom is a small role but will have far-reaching effects in (hopefully) ensuring better management decisions. Similarly, as entrepreneurs, insights and strategies from a few hours’ with a management consultant can have a big impact on business success. Or we could build our own expertise through training or business mentoring, for example.

It all starts with awareness of the opportunity to learn. Next time you hit a challenge in business, ask yourself: “What decision can I learn to do better next time?”

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