Learning will underpin the fourth industrial revolution

8 Sep 2017 By Barry Johnson

As rapid technological advances change how we work, employees will lean on L&D professionals for support

You probably learned about the industrial revolution at school. It was the transition to new manufacturing processes from about 1760 to about 1840, entailing the move from hand production to machines; the growth of manufacturing and iron production processes; the use of steam power; and the rise of the factory system. It had wide social impacts and marked a turning point in most aspects of daily life, leading to sustained population growth, and increased standards of living and primary education.

The fourth industrial revolution is fundamentally different. It is characterised by new technologies that are fusing the physical, digital and biological worlds, affecting all disciplines, economies and industries, and even challenging ideas about what it means to be human. Yes, it’s a human learning revolution.

It has the potential to connect billions of people to digital networks, to improve the efficiency of organisations and to manage assets in ways that can help regenerate the natural environment. This will give rise to unprecedented processing power, storage capabilities and knowledge access, and a massive boost to democracy. This revolution will demand continual learning that, as L&D professionals, you will drive.

Are there problems? Governments could fail to employ and regulate new technologies to capture their benefits; shifting power may create new concerns; industries may not keep pace; societies may fragment, inequality may grow; and cultures may collapse. Will some nations dominate those that fail? Will risks to humanity such as global warming and population growth be tackled?

The current belief is that the new technological revolution entails nothing less than a transformation of humankind. We are at the beginning of a revolution that is fundamentally changing the way we live, work and relate to each other. Its scale, scope and complexity are unlike anything humankind has experienced before.

Think about the staggering technological breakthroughs covering wide-ranging fields such as mobile phones, artificial intelligence, robotics, digitisation, the internet of things, autonomous vehicles, 3D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, energy storage and quantum computing. Many of these innovations are in their infancy, but are already reaching a development point that amplifies others in a fusion of technologies across the physical, digital and human worlds.

All organisations’ employees will demand learning. Changes are underway in how we work, communicate, inform and develop ourselves. Governments and institutions are being reshaped, as are systems of education, healthcare and transportation, among many others.

We do not yet know how the transformations driven by this industrial revolution will unfold. Complexity and interconnectedness across sectors implies that all stakeholders of global society – governments, business, academia and civil societies – have a responsibility to work together to better understand the emerging trends. Our view? The future rests in our learning. History has gone. The future is now.

Barry Johnson is a non-executive director at Learning Partners

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