Unlearning, unleashing, uplifting: the new kind of leadership we need  

technology work leadership

Bright sparks: Management needs to change to harness new ideas Image: REUTERS

James M. Loree
Chief Executive Officer, Stanley Black & Decker Inc.
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SDG 08: Decent Work and Economic Growth

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • We can harness the Fourth Industrial Revolution for sustainable development and a more inclusive society.
  • But industries need to spearhead new systems for learning and using next-generation technologies.
  • And we need to innovate together, across the board, to unleash society's transformation.

The exponential growth opportunities and potential societal gains of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) provide strong incentive for any company looking to deliver meaningful positive impact and lasting value.

Yet too often, companies are hindered by outmoded management models designed for eras that have long since passed. To be successful in their Industry 4.0 (I4.0) transformations and make sustainable contributions, companies should take an inclusive approach that reflects their commitment to a broad set of stakeholders — shareholders, employees, customers, suppliers, and communities.

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Today, the 2030 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) represent society’s most critical needs and stand as bright-line reminders that industry can and must move faster and more purposefully. In the balance, and within reach, is a chance to achieve world-changing improvements.

leadership is needed for the SDGs
A new kind of leadership is needed to achieve the SDGs

How might organisations better position themselves to accelerate transformation, rise to the challenges of the SDGs, and meet the urgent demands of stakeholder capitalism? Here are three considerations for industry leaders.


We often hear that continual learning is essential for success in the modern workforce. Boston Consulting Group’s Martin Reeves has identified “competing on the rate of learning” as a new axis of competition in the 2020s. Yet today, 10 million global manufacturing jobs remain unfilled due to gaps in skills and education — an issue that can only be resolved if the I4.0 transformation addresses the need for unlearning and relearning new skills. It’s not that we need more training — we need a different approach. Learning, in other words, is not merely part of the job; learning is the job.

For a manufacturer, this requires champions in senior leadership as well as ambassadors deployed throughout the organisation, including at the plant level. The objective is to ensure that advanced methods and technologies are adopted and deployed in non-threatening ways that solve strategic challenges and uplift work. A robust talent development roadmap is essential as well, both for the workforce and for every individual. Johnson & Johnson (J&J) successful employs this approach. It has identified capabilities for the worker of the future and embarked on a pathway to close the skills gap as it upskills its supply chain associates. J&J developed awareness programmes as well as level-one and level-two curricula while partnering with universities to bring social network learning to its supply chain associates.

As the I4.0 revolution unleashes ever faster and more powerful technological waves, the ability to unlearn and learn faster becomes almost as important as knowledge itself. This is true at both the individual and organisational levels. Access to knowledge requires a broad ecosystem approach involving universities, trade schools, governments, NGOs and for-profit companies.


The next step, of course, is to synchronise all of the above so that each time a new technology is rolled out, it is accompanied by process-specific training, employee-specific development plans, and local outreach and programmes. To truly unleash innovation on this level, and in ways that support sustainable production, a systems leadership mindset would advocate for a more expansive and inclusive concept of the manufacturing environment.


We know that the industry community has made great strides with the lighthouse model of showing leadership in applying 4IR technologies. Indeed, the Global Lighthouse Network shows what is possible. But we cannot afford to innovate in isolation. To accelerate progress not only on an enterprise level but globally, we have to realise that the “One Lighthouse” idea is but a vital step in the journey, not the destination itself. We must continue to push the boundaries of partnership and collaboration by including all parts of the innovation ecosystem, and scale what needs to amount to millions of lighthouses.


Optimising the benefits of the I4.0 transformation will require end-to-end solutions throughout the supply chain, including small- and medium-sized enterprise (SME) suppliers, their employees, and the communities where transformation is most acutely experienced. SME-suppliers face many of the same talent shortages and challenges as their customers do, yet lack scale and resources. Industry 4.0 leaders can play a significant role in ensuring that the transformation is inclusive and uplifts people and communities across the supply chain.

Here, too, systems leadership and an ecosystem approach open opportunity for businesses to connect purpose to performance. In 2020, our company will be partnering with technology leaders, technical and academic institutions, political officials, and other manufacturing stakeholders in Hartford, Connecticut to create an ecosystem to broadly share the I4.0 transformation. Our specific focus will be on uplifting people and creating an advanced manufacturing hub.


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

This is an opportune moment for the industry community to realise a common vision for the future, and shape a brighter future for the world. But the window won’t stay open forever. Drawing upon the strength of the community, we can bring increased speed and investment into areas of mutual importance to build scale — accelerating transformation not of individual facilities or companies, but of the entire ecosystem. By creating a system that constantly refreshes itself with data and learning, we, together with our employees, supply chain partners, customers and other companies, can positively bend the curve for entire labour markets, and deliver greater value for society.

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Related topics:
LeadershipForum InstitutionalStakeholder CapitalismFourth Industrial Revolution
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