As we implement smart technologies in our factories and workplaces, connected machines will interact, visualise the entire production chain and make decisions autonomously.
Previous industrial revolutions liberated humankind from animal power, made mass production possible and brought digital capabilities to billions of people. The 4IR is, however, fundamentally different. It is characterised by a range of new technologies that are fusing the physical, digital and biological worlds, impacting all disciplines, economies and industries, and even challenging ideas about what it means to be human.
The basic principle of 4IR is that entire value chains are interconnected by autonomous
systems created by intelligent networks of machines and data.
Cloud computing is a key feature of this revolution. The rapid rate of change has necessitated a re-evaluation of corporate structure and workplace business practices,
particularly within the leadership realm. At its core, 4IR strives to reduce the need for human
labour and leaders are grappling with how this changes business dynamics, strategies, and
their own roles. The effects of this revolution and the paramount importance of the right
leadership style during this pivotal time cannot be underestimated.
The resulting shifts and disruptions mean that we live in a time of great promise and great
peril. The world has the potential to connect billions more people to digital networks,
dramatically improve the efficiency of organisations and even manage assets in ways that
can help regenerate the natural environment, potentially undoing the damage of previous
In his book, The Fourth Industrial Revolution, Klaus Schwab, chairman of the World Economic Forum, describes the enormous potential for the technologies of the 4IR as well
as the possible risks and that it has introduced a new economy and new globalisation that
require innovative forms of governance to protect the public good. The human condition, he
proposes, is in the hands of leaders from business, government, civil society and academia
and its future well-being depends on their timely adaptation to these changes.
In particular, Schwab calls for leaders and citizens to “together shape a future that works for
all by putting people first, empowering them and constantly reminding ourselves that all of
these new technologies are first and foremost tools made by people for people.”
He also has grave concerns that these organisations might be unable to adapt and
governments could fail to employ and regulate new technologies to capture their benefits.
The results could be devastating. Power could shift and this could create important new
security concerns where inequality may grow and societies could become more fragmented.
Leaders across production value chains have the opportunity to drive transformation by
elevating and enabling their workforces. The path forward involves adopting key leadership
behaviours. Crucial to this are new partnerships among businesses, governments,
educational institutions, labour, and social partners, which help ensure positive outcomes for people while enabling production workers.
Consequently the 4IR requires a new leadership paradigm. Turbulent times call for an
approach that puts people at the centre of manufacturing and production. Leaders must
transform their organisations to stay relevant and competitive amidst unprecedented change, but they must do so in a manner that guides the people in their workforce to opportunities and prosperity.
Putting people at the centre means investing in the knowledge, skills and mind-sets required
to navigate the complexities of today and tomorrow. Leaders no longer have the luxury of
preparing for the 4IR. Its disruptive forces can already be felt across all organisations as
unprecedented technological advances drive seismic shifts.
Indeed, one of the greatest promises of the 4IR is to potential is to improve the quality of life
for the world’s population and raise income levels. Our workplaces and organisations are
becoming “smarter” and more efficient as machines, and humans start to work together, and we use connected devices to enhance our supply chains and warehouses.
In particular leaders and citizens will have to work together in shaping a future that works for all by putting people first, empowering them and constantly reminding them that all of these new technologies are first and foremost tools made by people for people. We will have to be proactive in shaping this technology and disruption. This requires global cooperation and a shared view of how technology is reshaping our economic, social, cultural and individual lives.
In essence, the world will need to develop leaders with the skills to manage organisations
through these disruptions in technologies. We will need to embrace change and realise that
what our jobs are today might be dramatically different in the not too distant future. Our
education and training systems will need to adapt to better prepare people for the flexibility
and critical thinking skills they will need in the future workplace.
In the 4IR or the digital age the leader’s responsibility will be to navigate these changes with
integrity and to provide positive, impactful leadership as the business landscape takes a new shape. This dynamic era will create new opportunities to reinvent work and to reinvent the workplace. Leaders will have to do so with integrity and to provide positive, impactful
stewardship as the business landscape takes on new dynamics.
The new disruptive era will need leaders who are emotionally intelligent and able to model and champion co-operative working. They will have to coach and mentor, rather than command and most of all they will be driven by empathy, not ego. The 4IR needs a different,
more human kind of leadership. Leaders will have to harness the collaborative intelligence of their organisations and create agile teams to deal with the incessant disruptions.
Equally, success in this new era, whether that means corporate profits, macroeconomic
growth, human welfare or solving the most intractable problems facing the world will also
require managing teams of highly specialised technical experts and knowledge workers such as scientists, engineers, data analysts. It will require an approach that recognises the
heterogeneity, ambition and sophistication of such staff. Managing these teams of
knowledge workers will require a very different mind-set to the ‘run of the mill’ leadership.
It is quite obvious that in this new era as technology grows exponentially, leaders will have to make complex calculations based on a number of factors quickly. As Bernard Perry at
TRANSEARCH, explains. “What’s interesting about the leaders of tomorrow is they will need
to see the big picture and the very fine detail simultaneously”. Leaders will have to recognise and extract the relevant and valuable insights from the quantity, granularity and speed of available information.
It’s impossible to predict the future, but we can look to the past to find similarities that might
provide indicators of where we are heading. The Industrial Revolution of the 1900s brought
forth new technologies and different ways of working. Many skilled workers found themselves replaced by machines. With the rapid speed of change in the 4IR, it is almost
impossible to predict what will happen next.
The 4IR is quite different than the three Industrial Revolutions that preceded it (steam and
water power, electricity and assembly lines, and computerisation) because it will even
challenge our ideas about what it means to be human.
Paresh Soni is Associate Director for Research at the Management College of Southern Africa and writes in his personal capacity.