Strategic Management of South Africa’s HEIs in the era of Technological VUCA

Hazvineyi Saurombe & Anna-Marie Pelser

Hazvineyi Saurombe – Extraordinary Researcher, NWU GIFT ENTITY

Correspondence email address:

Orcid Number: 0000-0001-5756-2299

Anna-Marie Pelser – Professor, Director Global, Innovative, Forefront, Talent Management (GIFT)

Correspondence email address: or

Orcid Number: 0000-0001-8401-3893

Ensovoort, volume 44 (2023), number 11: 4


In many organisations, the introduction of new technologies brings about a paradigm shift that inevitably affects the operations of the whole system. In higher education institutions, this means a huge shift in the way in which teaching and learning take place. Strategic management, which has always been trusted in turbulent times to steer businesses to safe terrain, is finding itself in unchartered waters as the term ‘VUCA’ (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity) has taken center stage in describing the unpredictable and rapidly changing environment that many business organizations, including HEIs, are finding themselves in. The VUCA world presents significant challenges to the traditional strategic management approach, which emphasizes long-term planning, forecasting and stability, whereas in-order-to survive and thrive in the VUCA environment, organisations need to adopt new approaches. Strategic management now requires a mindset shift from its traditional rigid planning and execution approaches, and adopt agility, flexibility, adaptability and the ability to learn from experience in order to respond quickly to changing circumstances.

The continuing developments enabled by information technologies present unprecedented problems in Higher education institutions (HEIs), such as the sudden transition from traditional face-to-face delivery of learning, in which most of these higher education institutions had become efficient at doing, to more advanced technological methods. For many centuries, HEIs have been known for their lack of reliance on technology, and for their overwhelming dependence on the ‘teacher in person’ method of delivery.

Information technology now plays a central role in HEIs as the success of these teaching and R&D organisations is highly dependent on key technological developments such as the Internet, mobile devices, big data and analytics, cloud technologies, technologically enabled methods of assessment, ChatGPT and 3D printing—all of which are necessary to satisfy today’s Generation Y consumers. HEIs need to progressively incorporate such into their business practices if they are to remain relevant and responsive to the global cut-throat competitive landscape. The persistent questionings regarding the purpose of existence for HEIs through tough conversations around decolonizing the university, curriculum, and the need for universities to take leading roles in sustainability, circular economy, and R&D innovations — all agitate for a rethink of business models and is bringing about VUCA forces that inevitably need to be managed with greater efficiency and effectiveness; leaders need to be decisive and proactive, rather than reactive.

This paper uses Fiedler’s Contingency Theory, which states that a leader’s effectiveness is dependent upon the situation at hand. The research question that this paper answers is: How can HEI leaders develop a strategic management approach that is aligned with the realities of a VUCA world brought about by continuous advances and evolution of information technology, in order for them to remain competitive and relevant?

This paper is a qualitative review of available literature on the current state of knowledge regarding strategic management of HEIs in a VUCA world. Various electronic databases will be scanned for published articles. Secondary data will be sourced from published articles, policy documents, reports and communications and will be analyzed thematically. Strategic recommendations on how to proceed in VUCA terrain will be made and conclusions derived from the data show that VUCA can counter VUCA (transforming Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity to Vision, Understanding, Clarity and Agility.

Key terms: strategic management; decolonizing; human capital; research and development; VUCA

Introduction and background

The world is changing at an ever-increasing pace, and with it, is the need for humans to keep pace with the resultant technological, economic, and social developments. This situation presents a VUCA terrain, an acronym for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity (Arda, Aslan & Alpkan, 2016; Saleh & Watson, 2017; Wright & Wigmore, 2023) – all of which are qualities that make a situation or a condition difficult to analyze, respond to, or plan for and manage accordingly. It is highly unpredictable, and situations change rapidly, resulting in rendering obsolete all known and existing models that have ever been used to deal with complexity and uncertainty.

The traditional strategic management approach in volatile and unstable terrains has been shaken to the core, and managers have been forced to move away from its rigid long-term planning and execution approaches premised on stability, and instead adopt fluid and ductile management approaches that enable quick and relevant responses to the VUCA terrain. This paper focuses on how HEIs can be strategically managed during the time of VUCA set off by technological advancements and turbulence.

Core mandate of HEIs

The Evolution of Education has been a constant process since the 16th century. HEIs today are surrounded by disruptive forces that are challenging their status quo: such as new university business models, changes in social attitudes, economic crises, cut-throat competition in the adult education market, internationalization, as well as rapid technological advancements (Van Vuuren, 2021). The core functions of South African HEIs, according to Universities South Africa, (2023) are: Teaching and Learning, Research and Publication, Administration and Management, Innovation and Commercialization, Internationalization as well as Community Engagement.

Over and above these, South African universities are mandated to produce graduates who are well-equipped with the knowledge, skills, and values to contribute to the growth and development of South Africa, the African continent and the world as a whole. Higher education institutions provide knowledge, ideas, and skills that enhance creativity, critical thinking and innovativeness (CHE, 2013) that is needed to identify and solve global challenges such as mentioned in the SDGs adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2015, Agenda 2063, SADC and the National Development Plan (NDP). Institutions of higher education can provide cutting-edge academic knowledge in both research and teaching and can stand as neutral and reliable stakeholders in society and have the ability to take leading roles in addressing local, national, and international problems (Ashida, 2022). Tasked with such a heavy responsibility, and to fully participate in the debate about the education we need for the future, technological innovations are necessary to improve the educational experience and educational outcomes.

HEI terrain under VUCA of technological advancements

Historically, Universities (now HEIs) have existed since the times when technology was non-existent; they were just known as “a place for the communication and circulation of thought by means of personal intercourse” (Newman; 1996). Education dissemination was dependent on the in-person talk, printed books, and no television (Qureshi, 2022). However, in the 21st Century, HEIs have become exposed to new technologies, more so, in the 4IR dispensation (Industry 4.0) which is disrupting this peace and quiet and compelling them to change the way they execute their mandate (Soffer & Nachmias, 2018). Where the HEIs were once simply the depositories of new information and knowledge, the Internet and social networking technologies now offer resources of unparalleled magnitude making information and knowledge gained in classrooms appear outdated (Flavin, 2016). With the onset of such impressive technological advancements, rapid and unpredictable changes have also taken Higher Education by storm. Volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA) have set ushering in a new reality where traditional planning methods have ceased to be sufficient to manage the new complexities of the HEI environment. Strategic management, which is defined as a set of managerial decisions and actions that help determine the long-term performance of an organization (Wheelan, Hunger, Hoffman & Bamford, 2014), has been almost rendered obsolete by VUCA. Where Strategic management places emphasis on long term planning in a stable environment, VUCA dictates the exact opposite, requiring that, to survive and thrive, leaders need to adopt new approaches, as the landscape is now characterized by rapid and unpredictable changes, making it difficult for organizations to predict future trends and plan for the long term. Previous methods that guaranteed success no longer suffice. In short, the most accurate descriptions of VUCA are: quick and chaotic changes, lack of standards, or the constant outdating of plans and projects (Nowacka & Rzemieniak, 2022). The effects of VUCA will be portrayed in the following functions and operations of HEI existence, where technological advancements have made inroads to: Teaching and learning, Research and publication, Community engagement, Administration and management, Innovation and commercialization, and lastly, Internationalization.

Problem statement

Education is a critical driver of the UN Sustainable Development Goals 2030, AU’s Africa Agenda 2063 and South Africa’s National Development Plan (NDP). Higher Education Institutions are preparing future professionals, conducting meaningful research, and engaging with the community and stakeholders to tackle local, national, regional, and global challenges (UNAI, 2022). HEIs have been placed at the forefront to come up with solutions required to advance the Sustainable Development Goals, underscoring the fundamental role of education in creating healthy and inclusive societies as envisioned in the 2030 Agenda (UNAI, 2022).

Information technology now plays a central role in HEIs as the success of these teaching and R&D organisations is highly dependent on key technological elements which are necessary to satisfy the modern-day consumers (Sanburn, 2013) who are adapting quickly to a world undergoing rapid technological change. HEIs must be key in the production of a knowledge-based economy in response to today’s clarion call. The onset of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) whose architecture dictates that students be prepared to function effectively as they take up careers on the global market, such as in big data applications, artificial intelligence, robotics, machine learning and so forth (OECD, 2021). This confluence of factors brings about volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity in the strategic management of teaching and learning in HEIs landscape, and thus, requires the academy to rethink and restructure, both what and how they teach and research, and how they intersect with society (Osland, Li, & Mendenhall, 2017; Wilkins & Juusola, 2018) if they are to remain relevant and responsive to the global cut-throat competitive landscape of higher education. A report by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network-Australia/Pacific (2017) presents that technology can reduce the cost of achieving the SDGs by as much as USD 55 trillion, against a total cost of reaching the SDGs by 2030 at USD 195 trillion. This shows how universities, by adopting technological advances, can play a pivotal role in the successful implementation of the sustainable development goals (El-Jardali, Ataya, & Fadlallah, 2018).

Prior experience equipped managers with the knowledge they needed to navigate HEIs business strategy as well as executive decision-making (Saleh & Watson, 2017). However, all these previously tested and proven methods of managing HEIs no longer guarantee high performance as today’s dynamic business environment and uncertain conditions of VUCA are challenging managers to find new ways to survive. HEI management needs to examine their participation in the international milieu, and align with global frameworks such as the SDGs, Agenda 2030, AU Agenda 2063. Having a higher education sector that cannot lead in such endeavors will severely challenge its existence.

Research Question

The research question that this paper seeks to address is: How can HEIs strategically manage the VUCA realities brought about by information technology in their teaching and learning operations as well as their general management in-order for them to remain competitive and relevant?


The aim of this research is to present ways through which HEIs can still align the strategic management approach with the present day VUCA realities to stay afloat in the era of embracing new and necessary realities brought about by constant and rapid information technological advances. It also contributes to the body of literature on VUCA in SA HEIs.

Fiedler’s Contingency Theory as an anchor for managing in VUCA climates

Developed by Fiedler in the 1960s, this theory states that, there is not one best style of leadership, but rather, for a leader to be effective, there must be harmony between their leadership style and the situation at hand (situational favorableness). It provides a framework for effectively matching leadership styles and situations, with the idea that certain leaders are better suited to certain situations (Fiedler, 2006).

Managers are most vulnerable to the volatility and chaos of the VUCA environment in that they are expected to be leaders, bosses, or presidents in one person (Nowacka & Rzemieniak, 2022). They are still held responsible and accountable when things go wrong within their organisations when novel challenges are imposed on their organisations in VUCA times. In such situations, and in accordance with situational favorableness of Fiedler’s contingency theory, these leaders must respond to the situation at hand, and resort to the use of competences and effective actions that they have not used before, which are determined by VUCA. Leaders must create moments of clarity and focus, whilst at the same time analyzing the shifting environment and preparing to react. They need to be flexible but remain focused in order to keep people motivated. While VUCA is complex and challenging, it also presents an environment that can allow true leadership talents to emerge, it can also allow leaders to view VUCA as an opportunity for development and greater collaboration, rather than a risk to be mitigated, and can assist leaders to manage the ever-changing modern HEI landscape (Wright & Wigmore, 2023). The Contingency theory is all the more applicable as the behaviour of leaders is critical in the turn of events during VUCA.

Literature Review

Strategic management

At some point in time, VUCA was flaunted as a reason to discount the value of strategic planning and as an excuse to avoid planning and action. This research argues that indeed, while traditional strategic management has been challenged by VUCA, its core values of long-term planning cannot be discarded. VUCA is certainly not the end of strategy. Abundant academic literature shows that the influence of external forces in business is nothing new, change is not new (Brauns, 2015; Donthu & Gustafsson, 2020; Stobierski, 2020). The only new thing about change is its pace, its immediacy, the extent of impact and the resultant factors that must be taken into account (Mancesti, 2015). Managers can still think of strategy in the same way as before. The strategic approach of ‘set the goal-plan-execute’ indeed is no longer applicable, but new ways of working can be adopted.

VUCA elements

VUCA combines four different types of challenges in one word: volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity as shown in Table 1 below.

Table 1: VUCA Elements


Refers to turbulence, to the unexpected; it has the quality of something being subject to frequent, rapid and significant change occurring in an unpredictable manner. (Beabout, 2012, Taguma & Gabriel, 2018, Wright & Wigmore, 2023).


Occurs when events and outcomes are unpredictable; it is the absence of predictability and the cause and effect are not well understood, (Bennett & Lemoine (2014; Wright & Wigmore, 2023) It is unclear which direction events will go; and this lack of stability does not allow leaders to look to the past for guidance in how to predict future events (Cook, 2015).


Involves a multiplicity of issues and factors, some of which may be intricately interconnected, and this presence of a multitude of possible or difficult to understand issues in solving problems (Baltaci & Balci, 2017; Obolensky, 2014, Wright & Wigmore, 2023); along with heightened turbulence, and a lack of easily understood past predictors or precedence—all escalate the difficulty of making good decisions (Moodie, 2016), and presents a tumultous state of affairs to the human mind that is seeking to make sense of the world (Taguma & Gabriel, 2018)


Denotes a lack of clarity and difficulty understanding exactly what the situation or context is; none of the facts are clear (Wright & Wigmore, 2023) either because information is missing, inconsistent, contradictory, or obscured in some way (Taguma & Gabriel, 2018). Ambiguity in VUCA terrain is the inability to timeously and accurately identify threats, and opportunities (Stensaker, Frolich, Huisman, Waagene, Scorat, & Pimentel Botas, 2014).

VUCA in the HEI domain

There is a need for thorough understanding of how technological VUCA is playing out in each element of existence of higher educational institutions, namely: Teaching & learning, Research & Publication, Community engagement, Administration & Management, Innovation & Commercialization, and lastly, Internationalization. Challenges in these areas have always existed but have now intensified in recent years due to the accelerating pace of change and the interconnectivity of these issues (Garbett, 2020).

VUCA in Teaching & Learning in HEIs

Technological VUCA in teaching & learning refers to the challenges and opportunities presented by new and emerging technologies, namely technologically enhanced teaching platforms such as MSTeams, ZOOM, Google Classrooms, Moodle, Blackboard; Internet of Things, Big Data, Generative AI, ChatGPT and many more.

Volatility: The rapid pace of technological change means that universities need to constantly update their curricula and teaching methods to keep pace with the latest developments. New tools and platforms for online learning are constantly emerging, forcing educators to be flexible and adaptable, to change the learning environment and to cope with increasing demand of skilled persons for learning and training (Soffer & Nachmias, 2018), as well as to rethink and restructure customized programming for the new and increasing market segment (Avdeeva, Kulik, Koareva, Zhilkina, & Belogurov, 2017)

Uncertainty: Emerging technologies can be unpredictable and their impact on teaching and learning is not always clear. The widespread use of artificial intelligence in teaching and learning could potentially transform education, but it’s still uncertain how this will play out in practice. Instructional methods have evolved, and e-learning activities have expanded, allowing learners to access, create, and re-create content (Coates, Kelly, & Naylor, 2017). Technology has indeed disrupted learning. Higher education can no longer verify the skills and capabilities of students using existing formats of asynchronous assessments such as homework and take-home exams, and conversations around academic integrity and the ethics of producing your own work are now a hot topic amongst students, faculty, and staff. HEIs need to teach and assess process, not completed products (Gleason, 2023; Hirsh-Pasek & Blinkoff, 2023). HEIs need to embrace emerging technologies, in spite of the fact that they are daunting to learn and intimidating to implement (Waller, Lemoine, Mense, Garretson & Richardson, 2019).

Complexity: As new technologies are developed, they often become more complex and require specialized skills and knowledge to use effectively. The demand of industry skills has been changing over the years. Skillsets previously required in industry have been replaced with knowledge skillsets in the current information era (Suleiman, Baharun & Awang, 2012). HEI programmes (supply) now need to be aligned with the needs of local industry (demand), meaning that it is necessary to offer students with the current skills to keep the academic content relevant. Complexity sets in as HEIs battle to come up with the appropriate curricula (Griesel & Parker, 2009) and ensure graduate employability (Maxwell & Armellini, 2019; Oraison, Konjarski & Howe, 2019). There is need for management to invest time and resources in training and professional development in order to stay up-to-date with the latest tools and techniques

Ambiguity: Emerging technologies can present ambiguity in terms of their purpose and potential impact. Social media can be a powerful tool for collaboration and communication but can also be a source of distraction and misinformation. While HEIs must be key in the production of a knowledge-based economy in response to today’s clarion call, and that the onset of the Fourth Industrial Revolution dictates that students be prepared to function effectively as they take up careers on the global market (Schleicher, 2019; Firican, 2018, Schwab, 2016); their over reliance on technological advancements seems to be obliterating the very essence and reason for HEI existence by dwarfing the students whose learning experiences it is supposed to ameliorate. Their mental capability and moral behavior is somehow negatively impacted, resulting in production of graduates who are lacking in critical thinking and in ethical reasoning. Decisions that used to be based on human reflection are now made automatically (Pasquale, 2015, Paige-Leigh, 2017). How then will these students effectively take up the roles they are expected to assume in the 4IR? Lecturers are now compelled to navigate these ambiguities and help students develop critical thinking skills to evaluate the benefits and drawbacks of different technologies.

Technological VUCA in university teaching and learning calls upon lecturers to be adaptable, innovative, and proactive to keep pace with the changing landscape of technology and education.

VUCA in Research & Publication

Technological VUCA in research and publication refers to the impact of rapid technological change in the way research is conducted and published.

Volatility: Funding for research can be volatile, with government or private funding sources changing priorities so frequently. This makes it difficult for researchers to plan and execute long-term projects.

Uncertainty: The academic publishing landscape is constantly evolving, with new journals and publishing platforms emerging and existing ones changing their policies and requirements. Pirate journals have proliferated, which are not on the DHET list of accredited journals in South Africa, coupled with online publishing which is increasing the uncertainty in the field of knowledge economy. Researchers face uncertainty when trying to make informed decisions about where to publish their work.

Complexity: Collaborative research projects can be complex, with multiple stakeholders and partners involved. Coordinating communication and work across these diverse groups can be challenging, requiring clear leadership and effective project management.

Ambiguity: Academic research can be ambiguous, with findings and interpretations subject to debate and revision. It has also been claimed that AI technologies are able to produce fluent and fluid papers that are scientifically sound and insightful, (with scholars devoting more time to experiments and fewer hours to perfecting final research drafts), while on the other hand, this is considered as posing a threat to research integrity (Yirka, 2022; Grove, 2023). Researchers need to get accustomed to this ambiguity and be able to communicate their work in ways that are acceptable, as VUCA factors affecting university research and publication require researchers to be adaptable, resilient, and creative in order to navigate the ever-changing research landscape.

VUCA in Community engagement

Volatility: Community engagement efforts may be impacted by sudden changes in funding, policy, or leadership. For example, a new government administration may prioritize different community initiatives or reduce funding for existing programs.

Uncertainty: The needs and priorities of communities can change rapidly, making it difficult to predict how best to engage with them. For example, a sudden natural disaster could shift the focus of community engagement efforts from long-term development to immediate relief efforts.

Complexity: Community engagement involves navigating complex systems of power, including cultural, economic, and political structures. For example, a university may need to navigate complex power dynamics when working with marginalized communities or with multiple stakeholders in a particular project.

Ambiguity: Community engagement efforts can be ambiguous in terms of goals, outcomes, and impact. For example, it may be difficult to measure the success of a community engagement initiative or to determine the most effective approach to achieving the desired outcomes. The VUCA in community engagement requires universities to be adaptable, flexible, and responsive to change, while also maintaining a long-term vision for their engagement efforts.

VUCA in Administration and Management of HEIs

In the context of university administration and management, VUCA can refer to a number of different challenges and issues.

Volatility: Universities face a rapidly changing landscape, with new technologies, social movements, and economic conditions constantly reshaping the education sector. Administrators must be able to adapt quickly to new developments and respond to changing student needs and expectations.

Uncertainty: The future of higher education is uncertain, with ongoing debates about the value of a college degree and the role of universities in society. Administrators must be able to navigate this uncertainty and make informed decisions about how to allocate resources and plan for the future.

Complexity: Universities are complex organizations with many different stakeholders, from students and faculty to alumni, donors, government regulators, and powerful international organisations whose policies have a ripple effect on how HEIs operate. As HEIs are bombarded and exposed to developmental complexities brought to bear by these powerful organisations administrators must be able to manage these relationships and balance competing demands in order to achieve their goals. A fitting example here are the WHO and UN SDGs whose polices have made the higher education environment very uncertain.

Ambiguity: Many of the challenges facing universities are ambiguous or ill-defined, with no clear solutions or easy answers. Ambiguity is presented through the introduction of “disruptive” technology, and the embracing of new standard operating procedures, such as the transition from print to digital media, from face-to-face to online modes of delivery, migration to electronic library resources and eBooks, online repositories and student management systems; working online has become the new normal (Jari & Lauraéus; 2019, Bajarin, 2021), and is being used for online classes, tutoring, mentoring, post graduate supervision, meetings, webinars and many more. Administrators must be able to work through these ambiguous situations and make decisions in the face of uncertainty.

To address these VUCA challenges, university administrators may need to adopt new management strategies and techniques. This could include developing more agile and flexible organizational structures, leveraging data and analytics to make better decisions, and building stronger partnerships with other institutions and stakeholders. Additionally, administrators may need to cultivate a culture of innovation and experimentation, encouraging staff to take risks and explore new ideas in order to stay ahead of the curve.

VUCA in Innovation & Commercialization

Technological VUCA in this instance refers to the challenges that arise when innovation and commercialization (inherently risky activities) are influenced by rapidly advancing technology.

Volatility: in technology can lead to sudden shifts in consumer preferences or unexpected competition.

Uncertainty: can arise from emerging technologies or changing regulations that affect the market.

Complexity: can make it difficult to integrate new technologies into existing systems or to manage the complexity of large-scale innovation projects.

Ambiguity: can arise when the implications of new technologies are not fully understood or when the potential benefits and risks are not clear.

To navigate the challenges of technological VUCA in innovation and commercialization, universities need to be agile, adaptable, and able to respond quickly to changing circumstances. They need to invest in research and development to stay ahead of emerging technologies and anticipate future trends. They also need to build partnerships and collaborations with business to leverage the expertise of others and share the risks and rewards of innovation. In addition, universities need to be prepared to pivot quickly when market conditions change or unexpected disruptions occur. This may involve rethinking business models, developing new products or services, or finding new ways to deliver value to customers. This means there is need for vigorous investment in R&D so as to stay abreast and ahead of the multifarious changes brought about by advances in technology use in HEIs. A very recent typical example has been the response to ChatGPT use in academic writing by students and faculty. Turnitin has had to be revamped and reconfigured to enable it to identify knowledge production that has been aided by AI.

Technological VUCA in innovation and commercialization requires companies to embrace a mindset of continuous learning, experimentation, and adaptation. It also requires a willingness to take risks and to be comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. By doing so, companies can position themselves to thrive in a rapidly changing and unpredictable business environment.

VUCA in Internationalization

Volatility: The global higher education landscape is constantly changing, with new players and competitors emerging all the time. This can create volatility in terms of student recruitment, funding, and partnerships. Covid-19 pandemic had a significant impact on internationalization in universities. Many universities had to shift to online teaching and learning, which presented challenges in providing international students with the same level of support and interaction they would normally have received on campus. Management and administrators must be able to adapt quickly to changes in the market and stay ahead of the curve in terms of their internationalization strategies.

Uncertainty: Political and economic uncertainty can also impact universities’ internationalization efforts. Changes in visa policies, travel restrictions, or trade agreements can have significant implications for international student enrolment, research partnerships, and other aspects of internationalization. In the UK, data shows a sharp decline in students from Italy, Germany and France with Brexit seen as primary deterrent (O’Carroll & Adams, 2023). Administrators must be able to navigate this uncertainty and plan for contingencies by using technologies to reach out to the international student market by using technologies that would enable them to attain international qualifications without having to leave their countries of origin. This should be one of the most valuable take-home lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic that shook the world recently. Universities no longer need to completely rely on in-person teaching and learning, but through the advancement in teaching/learning technologies which can be strategically managed expertly universities can still have a footprint through virtual means without lowering their rigour of programmes and certification standards.

Complexity: Internationalization is a complex process that involves a wide range of stakeholders, from students and faculty to government officials, funders or sponsors, and host communities. Thus, HEIs managers and administrators must be able to manage these relationships and navigate cultural and linguistic differences to achieve their internationalization goals.

Ambiguity: Internationalization can also present ambiguous or ill-defined challenges, such as how to balance academic freedom and local regulations in a foreign context, or how to reconcile conflicting cultural norms and values. Administrators must be able to work through these ambiguities and make decisions that are in the best interests of their institution and its stakeholders.

To address these VUCA challenges, university administrators may need to develop new strategies and approaches to internationalization. This might include investing in new technologies and partnerships to stay ahead of the curve, building strong relationships with local communities and governments, and cultivating a culture of innovation and experimentation to explore new internationalization opportunities. Additionally, administrators may need to be agile and flexible in their decision-making, able to pivot quickly in response to changing circumstances and new information.


This paper is a qualitative review of available literature on how VUCA elements caused by technological developments in HEIs can still be subjected to strategic management. South African HE institutions were considered as the population. A literature study was carried out using desk research. The study used archival data and other critical secondary data sources, such as policy documents, reports and organizational communiques, which were thematically analysed. Various electronic databases were also scanned for published articles on VUCA. Data were reported as accurately as possible in keeping with the research code of ethics. Search terms such as VUCA in higher education, volatility in HE, Uncertainty in HE, complexity in HE and ambiguity in HE were used as search terms on various databases like GOOGLE Scholar, EBSCOHOST and related open access sites. These searches unearthed 550 articles addressing similar phenomena, and further refinement through a specific inclusion/exclusion criterion left the researchers with 50 articles, which then became the sample for the study.

Literature on best strategic management practices under VUCA conditions is still scarce, with some of the available literature only providing generalised and informal evidence (Mathebula, 2017; Saleh & Watson, 2017). This is because the VUCA phenomenon is only beginning to be correctly understood as the body of research on the phenomenon continues to grow.

The study is geographically limited to universities in South Africa, firstly because the researchers live in South Africa, they work in South African HEIs, and they have experienced the VUCA realities within South African HEIS. In such a setting, these are reasons enough to justify the choice of South African HEIs. The decision to demarcate the present study as such was also taken with due consideration of the fact that all the South African HEIs operations are equally impacted by VUCA which is technologically induced. What differs is the profound uniqueness of the different universities’ approach to the VUCA terrain.

Secondary Data

Tabulated below is the data gleaned from the literature and desk research on the VUCA challenges brought by technological developments in each of the six core duties of HEIs.

Table 2: Technological changes brought about by VUCA in HEI operations

Technological challenges to university teaching and learning

– AI bringing about cheating & academic dishonesty (Hirsh-Pasek & Blinkoff, 2023; Hafeez et al., 2021).

– Difficult to teach HOTS (higher order thinking skills, resulting in graduates who are not critical, not civic-minded (Paphitis & Kelland, 2016; Brown & Millichap, 2015).

– Artificial intelligence fundamentally changing the role of educators; Internet promoting shallow processing of information, raising superficial, & easily distracted readers (Carr, 2011, Hutchins, 2017).

Technological challenges to university

Research and Publication

– Technological developments have brought about new ethical challenges, such as concerns around data privacy and the potential for bias in algorithmic decision-making (Watters, 2023).

– Technology may encapsulate cultural codes that can be alienating for international students; there is a need to “open the black boxes” of technology to cater for them (Habib, Johannesen & Øgrim, 2014).

Technological challenges to Administration & Management

– Technology can be “disruptive”; embracing the new standard operating procedures is not easy e.g. the transition from print to digital media, from face-to-face to online modes of delivery, migration to electronic library resources and e-Books, working online becoming the new normal (Jari & Lauraéus; 2019, Bajarin, 2021).

– The unprecedented dynamism of digitization requires constant changes and transformation of ways of transacting business (Vial, 2019), which are not easy, and take time to implement.

Technological challenges to innovation & Commercialization

– Innovation causes fear and disrupts everyday habits (Galassi, Lucia & Micaela, 2021).

– Difficulty integrating new technologies into existing systems or to manage the complexity of large-scale innovation projects.

– Implications of new technologies not easily or fully understood; especially when the potential benefits and risks are not clear.

– Sudden shifts in consumer preferences or unexpected competition, while a long-term project is underway

Technological challenges to Internationalization

– Cross-national research collaboration continues to increase with greater complexity; enrolment of international students becomes complicated, there’s need to plan for different technologies to reach out to the international student market so that they attain international qualifications (Altbach & De Wit, 2023).

Technological challenges to Community engagement

– Emerging technologies present challenges to community engagement, they bring uncertainty: (Eaton; Wright; Whyte; Gasteyer & Gehrke, 2014)

– There’s need for successful engagement with community, lest the bond between them and the university fractures, creating an erosion of trust in both science and the University (Galassi, Lucia & Micaela, 2021).

Table 2 above shows how technology has changed everything, with far-reaching consequences, for HEIs. With the advent of technological developments, how these HEIs practice internationalization, how they engage with surrounding communities, how research and publication is conducted, how they respond to innovation and commercialization, how teaching and learning now occurs, and even how to administer and manage all these changes – has changed. Century-old concepts have shifted to new realities, which have indeed brought about VUCA. How to manage these is the purpose of this research paper.

Strategic management of VUCA elements in HEIs: (from VUCA to VUCA)

HEIs are indeed surrounded by VUCA, and this paper seeks to apply strategic management to resolve this situation. Therefore, instead of the acronym VUCA, meaning volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, and which describes the prevailing situation; HEIs can strategically flip the acronym to instead focus on the character of the strategic manager, who is the person most responsible for amortizing or turning around the situation induced by technological advancements. It has been categorically stated in literature that the most critical, complicated resource in any organization is the human aspect—the employee. The new acronym describing that person is: Visionary, Unrelenting, Competent and Agile (VUCA). It stands for Visionary strategic leader; Unrelenting strategic leader in finding new solutions to difficult situations; displaying Competent strategic leadership and management as well as being an Agile thinker. The new VUCA describes the human element required to counter the destructive and non-human VUCA. Diagrammatically, strategically dealing with VUCA can be presented thus:

Figure 1: VUCA Iceberg (Adapted from Asong, 2014)

The new VUCA is found underneath the iceberg, below the water surface. This is where there is stability. The rate of activity underneath determines the size of the iceberg that is seen at the top. The new VUCA brings stability; problems will be there, but the stability of the VUCA at the bottom (symbolized by the sheer size there) neutralizes and absorbs the shocks and the impacts of the VUCA that is seen at the top.

Dealing with VUCA in universities requires a strategic approach that helps the institution to navigate through the rapidly changing environment and stay ahead of the competition. This calls for the constant overhauling of ways of working in the wake of the incomprehensible interconnectedness of causes and effects in the field of higher education. Management needs to develop the necessary leadership, flexibility and imagination to adapt because the speed of change can simply be overwhelming (Lawrence, 2013; Kellerman & Seligman, 2023). The following can be incorporated:

Enhance flexibility and agility: HEIs need to be flexible and agile in their decision-making processes and in how they respond to new challenges and opportunities. They must make continuous and timeous shifts in people, process, technology, and structure and must also be able to quickly make decisions and adapt to changing circumstances. (Heracleous, Papachroni, Andriopoulos & Gotsil 2017; Horney & O’Shea, 2015; Qureshi & Nair, 2015).

Embrace innovation: Innovation, or the application of new methods (is key to staying ahead of the curve in a VUCA environment (Pearse, 2017; Millar, Groth, & Mahon, 2018). HEIs need to be innovative in their teaching and learning methods, research, and technology to meet the changing needs of students and society.

Develop partnerships: Collaborating with other universities, industry partners, and governments can help HEIs leverage their strengths and resources to tackle complex challenges and create new opportunities (Said, Ahmaf, Mustafa, & Ghani, 2015). Communication with all levels of employees in the organization, development and demonstration of teamwork and collaboration skills is also key to survive VUCA.

Focus on continuous learning: Continuous learning is essential in a VUCA environment, as new skills and knowledge are needed to keep up with the changing landscape, as well as to avoid technological obsolescence in the VUCA world (Hackett, Lemoine, & Richardson, 2017). Universities should offer ongoing training and development programs for staff and students to keep up with the latest trends and technologies.

Foster a culture of resilience: A culture of resilience is critical in a VUCA environment. HEIs should encourage their staff and students to embrace change, learn from failures, and adapt to new circumstances. Resilience is that which enables people to remain composed and to react calmly to VUCA, maintaining a positive mindset to ensure appropriate response to problems when they arise.

Stay connected with stakeholders: Universities need to stay connected with their stakeholders, including students, alumni, faculty, staff, and the wider community, to understand their technological needs and expectations, as well as to build a strong reputation. By adopting these strategies, among other innovations, universities can effectively deal with VUCA and navigate through the rapidly changing environment to achieve their goals and objectives.

Organisational culture

An organisation’s culture serves as a bedrock on which management of any crisis is reliant (Pandit, 2021; Alina & Cerasela, 2018. Some organisations seem to manage the response to the VUCA situations better than others, and this can be accredited to the clarity of their strategic intent and steadfast focus on it, never losing sight of this compelling statement about where they are going and which also succinctly conveys a sense of what they want to achieve in the long term. Organisational culture, being the backbone of any successful organisation, works hand-in-glove with business strategy. While strategy provides guidance, culture motivates everyone in the company to have the same purpose of driving the business forward (Hofsted Insights, 2021). In a VUCA world, organizational culture plays a vital role in establishing an encouraging environment for the employees to be equipped with the necessary skills and attitudes to cope with this fast-changing market (Geysi, Türkel & Uzunoğlu, 2019), and to develop a VUCA culture by rewarding innovation, agile behavior, and calculated risk-taking (Lawrence, 2013).


Volatility can be countered with visionary leaders because leaders with a clear vision of where they want to lead their organizations, enabling them to better weather volatility. Uncertainty can be opposed by an unrelenting leader, one who has the ability of never ceasing to look and listen to his or her environment; to look and listen beyond their functional areas of expertise and to make sense of events. Complexity can be warded off with a competent leader, whose person specification meets or exceeds the expectations of the job descriptions. Finally, ambiguity can be staved off with an agile leader; one who is flexible to make appropriate decisions based on scanned environmental factors and to move quickly to apply possible solutions.


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