How Executives can Respond to Predictions About the 4th Industrial Revolution?

September 13, 2016

Since the 1950s we have been living in a new industrial revolution that has transformed our lives. We have, to a large extent, gotten used to this pace of change. As professionals, we may believe we have adapted to the digitization of our universe and our workplace.

But experts believe we are not simply playing out the end of this massive shift to digital technology—the often called the third revolution. We are now on the brink of a fourth revolution, one that will cause even greater change and disruption. Executives who understand this are preparing themselves for change, looking forward to the new opportunities we will all encounter.

According to a study by General Electric, (the GE Global Innovation Barometer http://www.gereports.com/innovation-barometer/) most executives are optimistic.

  • 68% of business executive are looking forward to the changes the new industrial revolution will bring.  However, most executives are also aware that they will need to change to keep up.
  • 81% describe a fear of becoming obsolete in the face of this rapid change.

What exactly is the fourth industrial revolution?

Most people are familiar with the first industrial revolution, when machines such as the cotton gin and power loom replaced human labor. These devices were driven by water or steam power and increased productivity by 50 times. The next revolution came when electricity replaced steam and new communication systems such as the telephone and telegraph helped tie the process together. Finally, in the 1950s, the invention of the transistor and development of information theory brought on our digital world that includes computers and the internet.

While some believe we are still in this period, leading thinkers such as Professor Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, believe that we are heading into a new revolution. As Schwab describes it on the WeForum.org website:

“There are three reasons why today’s transformations represent not merely a prolongation of the Third Industrial Revolution but rather the arrival of a Fourth and distinct one: velocity, scope, and systems impact. The speed of current breakthroughs has no historical precedent. When compared with previous industrial revolutions, the Fourth is evolving at an exponential rather than a linear pace.”

Three major trends are driving this new revolution: the industrial internet of things, advanced manufacturing, and the emergence of massive interconnectedness—sometimes called the global brain.

How will these changes transform the workplace? On the one hand, productivity will certainly increase. Workplaces will become more efficient and safer, and most workers will experience less of the repetitious types of work that has marked industry in the past. Workforces will be more distributed, many tasks can be performed remotely, and work schedules will be more flexible.

On the other hand, the divide between high skilled and low skilled labor will grow. The demand for lower skill jobs will decrease, and the incentive for individual employers to provide constant re-training will not be as strong. This process may lead to resentment and social unrest, especially as the connectivity provided by social media creates unrealistic expectations and heightened awareness of inequality.

Higher skilled workers will become more important, and finding them quickly will be a major challenge for companies competing in an agile environment. Digital platforms will become increasingly important for finding and communicating with highly skilled workers.

How can business executives be successful in this environment?

The most successful companies will be innovative, disruptive, and agile. They can use data to identify and respond to opportunities, they use advanced manufacturing techniques to customize the entire process around the immediate needs of the customer. These companies can employ collaborative, global resources quickly and flexibly. The business executives who thrive in this environment will embody these characteristics.

These executives will be creative problem solvers who can embrace new markets and new technologies. They will understand complexity and ambiguity. Many will have the ability to transfer from environment to environment quickly, no longer relying on staying in a single role throughout their careers.

Executives will be connected, both digitally and in the real world, demonstrating thought-leadership and collaborative skills. Understanding how to use big data will often be a key differentiator, but so will emotional intelligence.

Knowing that these changes are coming is key. Executives who see this future can prepare for it. Business executives should be doing more than building resumes with skills that may be obsolete in a few years. They need to demonstrate those qualities that differentiate themselves as better candidates for the fourth industrial revolution environment.


Ian Brenner is a Partner and the leader of the Interim Management & Executive Search practice at Farber. Ian can be reached at 416.496.3666 and ibrenner@farbergroup.com.