According to the World Economic Forum (WEF) insight report, ‘Our Shared Digital Future’, around 60% of the global gross domestic product (GDP) will come from digital sources by 2022. That’s not ten or twenty years into the future, it’s three.
The world is entering an era of profound change. This Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) will sweep organisations, industries, and governments along in its ever-evolving wake. Some change can be predicted, some can be planned for, but the true impact on individual and organisation has yet to be felt or truly understood.
In the business space, 4IR is likely to cause significant change to both the organisation and the individual. The Future of Jobs Report highlighted that, for organisations and leaders to prepare for what lies ahead, they need to invest into 5G, cloud technology, big data and artificial intelligence (AI).
4IR provides the tools for growth
Why? Because the company that’s capable of embedding these emergent technologies into their ongoing business strategy and infrastructure is the one that is most likely to thrive. These technologies not only allow for increased organisational agility and flexibility, but they provide the employee with the tools they need to grow within new careers and roles.
The truth is that discussing 4IR in the context of the organisation has to include 4IR in the context of the individual and how 4IR will influence jobs, inequality, human identity and security. The two are interlinked – the success of the one depends on an understanding of, and commitment to supporting, the other.
“The real answer is that the business cannot make a call on its strategic approach to 4IR or its technology investment unless it has developed the right internal culture,” says Anton Herbst, Head of Strategy, Tarsus Technology Group.
“It has to cultivate a learning culture that allows for the individual to thrive beyond the application of automation or the addition of AI. It needs to provide people with the tools they need to adapt to 4IR because, without the people, there is no business.”
AI requires humans
At its current rate of development, AI is incapable of achieving its full potential without the guidance of human beings. Yes, automation is stepping into roles formerly held by people. However, it too requires human beings to work effectively.
That said, if these human beings are not given the tools and education they need to take on these new roles, then there is the risk that they will be left behind.
There is little doubt that 4IR is creating a demand for technology and for the people who can wield it. WEF reported that around 50% of organisations anticipate that automation will reduce the size of their workforce by 2022. Yet, equally, organisations are in dire need of skilled individuals who can harness the potential of this automation.
This is the responsibility of government, business and the individual. For, in the end, if the skills required to power 4IR are absent from the business, then it is the business that will lose.
“People need to stay relevant; they need to have access to the right skills and modern competencies such as emotional intelligence, problem solving, and curiosity,” says Herbst. “In fact, those three qualities are the ones most sought after in the increasingly competitive job market.
“You want to hire people who have boundless curiosity and a willingness to learn. You want people who can build relationships because these are the foundation of growth and customer engagement and business success in 4IR.”
Creating a relevant workforce
What the business also needs is to commit to creating a workforce that’s relevant in this new economy. The organisation has to provide the opportunity to develop critical skills and new ways of thinking.
This isn’t a responsibility that can be thrown at government or employees – the multifaceted challenges of 4IR are not somebody else’s problem.
“The organisation has to ensure that it builds the right talent within its own walls,” says Herbst. “It needs to understand the requirements of the new economy and the concerns that people have about their roles, and it must address them.
“The challenge we have in South Africa is that we have an incredibly high demand for people to move into 4IR so we can gain a competitive foothold in a dynamically changing market. The people who have these skills are the keys to unlocking all the doors that hide the potential of 4IR.”
Companies need to invest into internal skills development and training that will allow for employees to grow alongside the demands of 4IR. However, investment should not be exclusively internal.
The South African economic and educational landscape is fraught with complexity and challenges. The next generation is struggling to receive the education and support it needs to enter into the 4IR workforce of tomorrow.
“The private company is as responsible for the education of the youth as the government,” adds Herbst. “It is critical that together we invest into the future, that both public and private sectors look to developing sustainable skills development solutions that can bridge the growing gaps in the country. The South Africa Grade 04 PIRLS Literacy 2016 report released in 2017 found that the number of children who couldn’t read at the age of 10 in any language in 2011 sat at 58%, today that figure is now 78% – eight out of ten children cannot read.”
To further complicate the situation, there is the pressure put on those who can read and write to now develop skills that can translate in the digital economy. They are expected to make a giant leap that is often impossible in light of the lack of support and opportunity.
While organisations and research giants all study the oncoming 4IR onslaught, South Africa faces unique challenges that have to be rapidly and sustainably overcome to ensure that the country is capable of competing on the international stage.
It is a critical turning point.
If South Africa can find a way through the web of challenges that lie ahead, then it can potentially leapfrog the legacy infrastructures and complexities that have limited growth in more developed countries and take the continent into a new era. An era where Africa leads the digital revolution.
“We have to invest into our children, into our people, and into our businesses,” concludes Herbst. “These three areas may seem insurmountable in the face of the current odds, but South Africa has the potential to truly thrive as 4IR digs in and starts to spread its roots.
“Now is the time to invest into a culture that recognises the value of people, to invest into a talent pool that will grow alongside the business, and to ensure that existing employees have what they need to be relevant in the digital economy.”
Not an easy ride
4IR isn’t going to be an easy ride. No industrial revolution can lay claim to that title.
However, it can be one that allows for South African businesses to finally realise their potential on the local and international stage through long-term investment, sustainable growth, and savvy development of people and business.