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“What’s Next” for the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Peter Cochrane, former CTO at BT, Cochrane engaged attendees on how to best navigate the rapid disruption brought on by the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Given the growing levels of complexity that will be ushered in by the fourth industrial revolution, a fundamental change in the way humans think and work is non-negotiable. Universities need to lead the charge in this regard, and this begins with a fundamental shift in macro curriculum to ensure that the learning delivered to students aligns with the key drivers of this fourth revolution, namely technology, innovation-based problem solving, manufacturing-driven thinking, resource management, and the ability to establish and manage new systems and processes.

Preparing the employee of tomorrow to lead in this fast-changing world of work requires learning interventions built on the four pillars of appropriate skills, the correct attitude to change, awareness of social context, and systems-oriented thinking.

Pillar 1: Appropriate skills to leverage dynamic knowledge

The nature of knowledge has changed significantly and this has placed the onus on learning institutions to change the way they equip their students to access, process and use that knowledge. In other words, the real work of education institutions today is no longer to impart facts; it is to impart methods by which those facts can be harnessed in order to develop new ways of working, invent, manufacture and, ultimately, move society forward towards a better future.

As the disruption experienced by current systems and processes is magnified, linear thinking and traditional approaches will become ineffective. Only by prioritising the acquisition of knowledge-processing skills as a key learning outcome will tertiary institutions produce graduates who have the ability to take the skills they have acquired and immediately apply them in the workplace – to whatever role or function they assume.

Pillar 2: The right attitude towards change

The steadily increasing pace of change means that a willingness to take risks will increasingly become an essential part of career success and a vital cornerstone of any professional’s ability to have a positive impact on business, industry and community. The only way to encourage young professionals to take those risks is to ensure they complete their studies with a positive attitude towards change and an understanding of the possible impacts and consequences that such change may have on them – even if they facilitated that change in the first place.

The bottom line is that universities do not exist to simply churn out employees. They should be focused on raising up the next generation of CEOs, industry leaders, innovators and visionaries. If our tertiary institutions acknowledge this to be one of their key responsibilities, then ensuring their graduates have the attitude required to stand strong on their principles, embrace change, challenge the status quo and take risks in the name of progress must be central to everything they teach.

Pillar 3: Awareness of, and sensitivity to, the greater social context

Whether they operate in the business or political environment, the leaders of tomorrow must be able to anticipate the consequences of their decisions or actions and be cognisant of the implications those actions or decisions will have on themselves and others.

For education to fuel progress in a way that is constructive and truly beneficial to mankind, it has to be accompanied by a heightened sense of social and environmental responsibility. Graduates must be equipped with this new ethical foundation to ensure that rather than merely leading for the sake of progress, profit or personal gain, they enter the world of work as responsible citizens who have the ability and desire to harness a highly connected, rapidly evolving and data-centric global environment to deliver outcomes that enhance the greater good.

Pillar 4: Orientation towards systems and networks thinking

In the years to come, the way we work as organisations, industries and societies will increasingly move away from the historical focus on individual actions, specific tasks and defined job functions. Instead, effective employees will be those who understand the interdependence of all things, recognise the need for reciprocity, and embrace the fact that they function in a world of systems and networks.

Understanding this systems nature of the world is vital in order to be able to operate effectively within those systems and identify opportunities to leverage information to deliver socially advantageous outcomes. By helping students to understand this systems-based reality, tertiary institutions will massively multiply the value of the learning they provide.

In tandem with a heightened awareness of social context, this systems orientation has the potential to produce high-performing employees, managers and leaders who understand that their work is about more than merely doing a job – it’s about shaping the future.

The simple truth is that the universities of the world are no longer in the business of just producing graduates. They have a social and moral imperative to produce leaders who possess the abilities, understanding, awareness and moral compasses required to make the world better for everyone. Embracing these four pillars and integrating them into higher education curricula are the first important steps towards delivering on that higher order responsibility.

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