The concept of the Fourth Industrial Revolution was introduced in 2016 by Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum. Schwab outlined a scenario much like the popular science fiction movie “The Matrix,” in which there will be more than 100 trillion sensors connecting the human and natural environment in a global, distributed, intelligent network. Analytical models will develop algorithms that speed efficiency, increase productivity, and lower costs of production and distribution. The internet of things (IOT) will allow renewable energy, driverless vehicles and the manufacture of 3D-printed physical products at low margins. It will also transform our economics and skills by changing concepts that impact almost every conceivable aspect of life.

The Impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Most industries and organizations across the world are already feeling the impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution in multiple ways:

  • The pace of change is accelerating, and so will the disruption of traditional industries.
  • Traditional relationships, built through the workplace and civic organizations, are being replaced by relationships built through social media, employee advocacy and dynamic online affiliations.
  • Traditional corporations are not prepared to compete using the “old” ways of centralized power, top-down hierarchy, and command-and-control change.
  • There is an increasing need for greater transparency, speed of transformation and ethics.

The consequences of the Fourth Industrial Revolution will be profound. There will be widespread anxiety and fear about future opportunities for employment and economic mobility. We will see a growing sense of mistrust toward one another and toward organizations, as we see increased fragmentation within our societies. Fear and confusion will impede our ability to resolve conflict in a rational way, in the face of enormous issues, many of which are tied directly to the behaviors and ethics of our corporations.

These changes will impact training professionals in particular, since in many organizations, chief executive officers will start to look to internal learning teams to provide solutions and ensure corporate performance.

No wonder, then, that future capabilities are among the hottest topic for learning and development (L&D) professionals as they embrace the workplace of the future. Many experts take the links among individual capability, culture and organizational capability to be the true engine that delivers sustainable competitive advantage. The premise is that it’s more difficult for competitors to copy the way a company organizes internally, including its people practices, than to copy pricing and marketing or capital. The key is for companies to be deliberate about which capabilities they invest in and develop to meet changing demand. It is also imperative to align processes, from recruitment to rewards, from talent identification to continuous learning, toward developing those differentiating capabilities.

Capability Development: A New Approach

A different way to approach learning and capability development is to return to the basics and focus on empathy and cultivating a sharing mindset. The organizations that we work for shape the lives of the communities where we serve. Therefore, we can start from the inside out, by promoting empathy-based relationships within the core of organizations, beginning with personal dialogues. With empathy as a core capability, leaders can think about the impact of their organization’s actions, to ensure that they think through the unintended consequences of decisions that they increasingly have to make with less information and with little context.

As learning and development experts, we often make the common mistake of calling in consultants or other change agents from outside the organization. Instead, let’s ask ourselves how we can train employees to be participants in an internal change stemming from the heart of the organization.

Some things can only be born internally. In the highly networked, fluid organizations of the future, leaders will need new ways to communicate with employees, not just keeping a finger on the pulse of their organization but participating in an active distributed network. This type of leadership requires high levels of self-awareness and interpersonal skills. It’s different from the traditional problem-solver or charismatic cheerleader stereotypes of leadership that are often taught today.

We propose a “four Ds” process for organizations to align and be congruent with empathy, values and purpose:

    1. Discover what is important from each individual in order for everyone to align on purpose.
    2. Define what those things mean in the context of strategy and how the organization competes.
    3. Develop a plan to align purpose-based values and empathy at the core of how everything happens at the organization.
    4. Deploy “how we do things around here” through the actions of every employee, everyday.

The role of learning and L&D departments will help shape our society. This role requires us to build a host of different skills and capabilities, including the ability to take risks, stay open-minded and agile, learn from experiment and from each other, and learn from our failures — even when we are also anxious and afraid or uncertain about the future. By building successful, involved, ethical organizations that have empathy at their core, we will be able to create a better world for all of us.