The benefits of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) draw closer. They’re starting to feel real, almost within reach, promising greater value that extends across the business community and touches all levels of society. Which means we’re at the point where we could take them for granted and miss out entirely. Fully realizing the potential of 4IR will require a more inventive, inclusive approach to talent development, and some serious unlearning of outmoded ways, paired with learning contemporary methods. Today, even as 10 million global manufacturing jobs remain unfilled due to gaps in skills and education – gaps that will only widen as Industry 4.0 technologies advance – the 4IR future requires all of us to unlearn and relearn in order to create new paths forward.

As you think about the changes your organization will need to make to compete and grow in this shifting environment, here are a few insights based on our own journey.

Make unlearning and relearning part of your talent roadmap

Any upskilling roadmap today must build human capital through personalized learning and continual development. Learning needs to be ubiquitous, part of the job. In our case, the learning mix includes advanced vocational training, STEAM education, a certification programme specifically designed for our workforce, and new maker spaces – hands-on innovation environments that offer a wide range of equipment for training, upskilling and hackathons.

But we have found the paired “unlearning and relearning” opportunities we are creating are in some aspects more powerful, and are accelerating overall growth in unexpected ways. For example, at our Lighthouse Facility in Jackson, Tennessee, we are pairing people who are early in their career with experienced employees to accelerate mutual unlearning and relearning in areas such as human-machine interfaces, connecting digital and engineering disciplines across generations. It’s a collaborative model worthy of replication in the 4IR future.

Transforming Markets

During the last 50 years there has been unprecedented progress in human indicators – life expectancy has increased to record levels; infant- and maternal mortality has fallen; more girls are staying in school; more people have been lifted out of poverty than ever before; and inequality between nations has narrowed. The market system has served us well.

But deep fractures are beginning to show: gaping inequality within almost all countries; record environmental degradation and species loss; and the broader impacts of irreversible climate change. Our markets are unsustainable – and we need a new economic model.

To tackle these challenges,Transforming Markets is one of four focus areas at the World Economic Forum's 2019 Sustainable Development Impact summit. A range of sessions will bring stakeholders together to take action that places human and environmental health at the core of market systems and value chains. These include building sustainable markets, responsible supply chains, moving beyond disposability, circularity and scaling solutions of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, among others.

The multiplier effect from such an intensified focus on development is clear. A shop-floor operator named Lana, who works in a different area of the Jackson facility, stands out in this regard. Lana not only embraced her training, she also began training the other operators in her area. She also took it upon herself to optimize the way all of the machines were set up.

Imagine collaborative co-mentoring models and employees like Lana emerging at scale, and you begin to see how an unlearning-inspired talent roadmap could empower 10 million makers and creators to thrive in the 2030 economy.

Align development efforts with next-generation curricula

As the pace of change accelerates, organizations will increasingly need to invest more learning and development resources not only in their own workforces but in the broader labour markets and surrounding communities – and do so for the long term. Partnerships with public and private organizations offer compelling solutions that both strengthen today’s workforce and reshape curricula for the next generation of students.

For example, Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH), a partnership model designed by IBM in 2011, provides local high school students with an opportunity to gain hands-on experience in a vocational field. Students graduate with both a high school degree, a no-cost, industry-recognized associate degree, and relevant experience they can immediately apply in a high-paying “new-collar” job.

By investing both in the current workforce and in tomorrow’s, organizations can ensure that we are strengthening the talent pipeline and our communities for the long run.

Image: World Economic Forum

The coming decade will be a pivotal time for organizations to establish successful 4IR trajectories. This requires a willingness to unlearn, learn and relearn the concept of accountability.

The way we think about our own 4IR prospects is best expressed by our new 2030 corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategy, which specifically aligns with the UN Sustainable Development Goals and represents the most material issues for our organization.

Pursuing that strategy on a global enterprise scale has required us to develop a rigorous governance structure and process, and keep improving it. For the past two years, our CSR strategy has been supported by multiple levels of oversight across the company, all the way up to the executive steering committee, which includes the CEO, CFO and senior vice-president of HR; it is also championed by the corporate governance committee of the board of directors.

What is the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact summit?

It’s an annual meeting featuring top examples of public-private cooperation and Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies being used to develop the sustainable development agenda.

It runs alongside the United Nations General Assembly, which this year features a one-day climate summit. This is timely given rising public fears – and citizen action – over weather conditions, pollution, ocean health and dwindling wildlife. It also reflects the understanding of the growing business case for action.

The UN’s Strategic Development Goals and the Paris Agreement provide the architecture for resolving many of these challenges. But to achieve this, we need to change the patterns of production, operation and consumption.

The World Economic Forum’s work is key, with the summit offering the opportunity to debate, discuss and engage on these issues at a global policy level.

Now we’ve taken another step, adding an external advisory panel consisting of expert stakeholders who advise on CSR strategy. The enhanced governance structure provides board-level rigour and best-practice guidance to ensure that the company continues to meet its stated goals not only in terms of product and environment, but also from the standpoint of talent and governance. While we are in the early stages of rolling out this new structure, we believe that organizations will need to continue to raise the governance bar and take a more comprehensive approach to ensure accountability.

On the path to 2030

I sometimes think about this process of unlearning, learning and relearning as a kind of cook book – a living repository of successful recipes to transform business models in collaborative ways.

The ambitious goals of 2030, combined with the unmet societal needs we encounter every day, favour such an approach. You cannot progress and succeed in the 4IR without advancing the people who brought you there. The next decade, and the many innovations it holds, will come at us fast. We must be bold and seize this moment, both with a willingness to invest in talent and in our communities in completely novel ways, and with a recognition that greater governance is not a check on progress but a catalyst for positive change.