• De-learning has been overlooked in the discussion about the future of work
  • Employees must learn to forget the job description and past ways of working
  • Traditional, purely finance-focused leadership is out of date

By now, it’s no secret the Fourth Industrial Revolution is rapidly changing today’s business landscape, particularly with advancements in data and machine learning providing companies new, tech-enabled opportunities.

With one in five US workers saying their professional skills are no longer up to date, it’s clear we need to do more when it comes to preparing our workforce for the fast-evolving 21st-century workplace.

To date, too much of the conversation surrounding the future of work has been focused on reskilling. Reskilling is – of course – immensely important. Equally important, but thus far under-addressed, is the concept of de-learning. Specifically, everyone must ask themselves three questions:

  • How do we recognize what is outdated?
  • How do we disrupt our outdated ways of doing things?
  • How do we challenge ourselves to deviate from conventional business practice in order to chart a new path to a brighter future?

De-learning means forgetting what was once ‘best in class’

No industry is exempt from the effects of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and companies that once dominated their industries are likely to fail if they don’t rethink what it takes to be “best in class." Just look at the meteoric rise of Netflix, once a snail-mail DVD delivery service that’s now dominating the streaming market and Hollywood awards season. Its chief competitor, the once-ubiquitous Blockbuster, is gone. Similarly, direct-to-consumer retailers like Glossier and Bonobos are thriving, while the deified Barney’s is shutting its doors in New York. The reasons behind these incredible transformations don’t just lie in a company’s ability to incorporate new technologies, but in their ability to de-learn previous conceptions about what being “the best” meant. Whereas in the past, consumers may have prioritized luxury or variety, today, consumers want companies to provide products, services and experiences that are personalized to their needs and lifestyles.

It takes courage to set aside what has worked in the past, especially considering how long it probably took to master. These courageous initiatives – as Julie Sweet, CEO of Accenture, recently said – must be CEO-led, or they will be doomed to fail. Perhaps there’s no better example of a CEO who led such efforts than the “business person of the decade” Jeff Bezos, who championed Amazon’s transformation from an online book store to a retail and entertainment juggernaut.

Image: World Economic Forum Future of Jobs Report 2018

De-learning means letting go of your own ways of working

As traditional business practices evolve, we must be prepared to evolve with it if we hope to let go of the past and embrace the future. Just as the modern Amazon warehouse worker has relinquished shelf-stocking and item-fetching responsibilities to robots, we must all be prepared to forget the job descriptions we signed up for.

In the new digital world, efficiency will still be important, but agility will be a top priority. To become more agile, each of us must de-learn traditional methods for how we work and what we do every day.

These changes will, undoubtedly, impact how we form teams, how we identify rising talent and even how we establish hierarchies. A recent WEF India session on reskilling probed how we must “de-learn” methods and processes in order to succeed amid constant change. Creating this mindset requires a mix of hard and soft skills, argued Eric Loeb, executive vice-president at Salesforce, when describing the company's reskilling open platform. Striking an important balance between innovative and creative thinking, he posited, allows us to be open to new ideas about how to define and nurture talent.

De-learning requires a different kind of leadership

Sanofi CEO Paul Hudson has often emphasized the need for leaders to move away from having “moments of brilliance” to focus on pioneering lasting, industry-wide transformation. To achieve this long-term impact, we need leaders who can adapt to changing consumer and employee expectations. No longer is it enough to simply roll out blockbuster products or churn out positive financial results – people crave leaders who go beyond those typical metrics of success.

This year alone, more than 1,300 chief executives have stepped down, many because of their inability to de-learn and adapt to 21st-century leadership requirements. The list of dethroned CEOs includes many high-profile founders and eccentric personalities, suggesting that board members, consumers and employees are raising the bar when it comes to expectations for excellence. As such, CEOs need to de-learn the assumption that their personal brand can protect their position.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

The World Economic Forum was the first to draw the world’s attention to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the current period of unprecedented change driven by rapid technological advances. Policies, norms and regulations have not been able to keep up with the pace of innovation, creating a growing need to fill this gap.

The Forum established the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Network in 2017 to ensure that new and emerging technologies will help—not harm—humanity in the future. Headquartered in San Francisco, the network launched centres in China, India and Japan in 2018 and is rapidly establishing locally-run Affiliate Centres in many countries around the world.

The global network is working closely with partners from government, business, academia and civil society to co-design and pilot agile frameworks for governing new and emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI), autonomous vehicles, blockchain, data policy, digital trade, drones, internet of things (IoT), precision medicine and environmental innovations.

Learn more about the groundbreaking work that the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Network is doing to prepare us for the future.

Want to help us shape the Fourth Industrial Revolution? Contact us to find out how you can become a member or partner.

Gone are the days when CEOs could get away with minimizing facetime with actual customers. According to one study, most CEOs spend about 3% of their time meeting with customers. But those who listen to and form emotional bonds with customers are driving higher profits, suggesting that approachability and listening skills should now be considered priority qualities in a business leader.

Additionally, in the past, most business leaders were expected to keep their political or social views private. Today, however, CEOs are held responsible for a wide range of issues that matter to broad stakeholders, including diversity and inclusion, climate change, globalization and local job creation, gun control, privacy and so much more. Employees crave leaders who are bold and embody their own values. Anne Rafail, CEO of Air France, says we need to set goals that are bigger than ourselves. We have to deviate from introspective, often company-centric leadership mindsets in order to become outward game-changers.

The modern business landscape is only going to continue to change. By remaining open-minded to new opportunities and letting go of our tried-but-no-longer-true ways of working, today’s business leaders can be prepared for whatever lies around the corner in the future.