How employees will thrive in the fourth industrial revolution

As technology moves on apace, staff will only succeed with the support of L&D professionals

We have heard some short-term thinkers wax negatively about the fourth industrial revolution causing employee displacement by robots and artificial intelligence. They have little understanding of humans and technology reinforcing each other’s productivity.

Those industries early into the revolution will need all the humans they can get who accept and understand the changing world coming down the track. The change in the human social environment and the recognition of what robots and technologies need to be effective won’t just happen on its own – it needs smart people, at every level of organisations, from the shopfloor right the way up to the boardroom.

The laggard companies will be the ones creating redundancy problems; they may not survive as other countries take their markets. We need to be in the lead as we were in the first industrial revolution. We must avoid the out-of-date Luddite thinking and use the advances in industry to drive towards a Utopian social change. Finland, Switzerland, Sweden, Israel, Singapore, the Netherlands and the US are leading the world. Germany, China and France are awake, and we are dozing along about fifteenth. 

Integrative thinking is a robot-proof skill. It is the ability to see our ideas for what they are – our interpretation and simplification of the world around us. We need people who can think: ordinary, thinking people like the ones your organisation already employs, who are able to manage democratically and are capable of complex thought. I see a role for learning to create those skills and, yes, that means a role for you, the L&D practitioner.

The soft skills for the future will likely be integrative thinking and self-directed learning skills. Resilience is the key trait underpinning all of this. Change requires resilience, not defeatism. How are those skills learned? Resilience is a personal skill embodying buoyant flexibility and personal strength. And we need operational skills. We may employ Socratic learning, driving peer discussions with self-directed online learning such as video and interactive software. Yes, the learners will need strong self-directed learning skills, and continual upskilling is another imperative for survival in technology-augmented competition.

You, learning professionals, have the time to develop the skills needed. But you need two things: your personal drive, and funding from the executives ‘upstairs’. In a more efficient, faster, technology-driven world, the skills required to stay competitive still take time to learn. There are no shortcuts to human skill development.

The social environment in the new industrial environment will change. We can only guess what it will look like, but social skills and competencies, such as emotional intelligence, will be needed. Negative, short-term thinking, harking back to the past and expecting others to bail us out, is the route to failure, as was the case with the Luddites. Because the Luddites failed, more people earned more income, health improved, more infants survived and the factories were created. We can’t read the future, but it will happen – and learning professionals will be a key part of it.

Barry Johnson is a non-executive director at Learning Partners