Preventing Industry 4.0 failure: it’s all about cultural change

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Business leaders will need to take the bull by the horns when it comes to introducing AI into the workplace or risk Industry 4.0 failure, contends Matthew Buskell, AI specialist and Area Vice President at Skillsoft.  Gaining employee buy-in will be critical – as will a clear strategy for cultural transformation in the workplace.  

According to the World Economic Forum, we’ve embarked on a technological revolution that’s predicted to fundamentally alter the way we live, work and relate to one another.  Known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution (Industry 4.0), this disruption will be felt in every industry and in every country. 

The impact of cloud computing, big data, virtual reality, natural language processing (NLP), automation and artificial intelligence (AI) is already being felt in the workplace.  From platforms that leverage AI to automate software development and cybersecurity to ‘smart’ chatbots that are changing how companies and customers interact, the business landscape is evolving rapidly. 

While no one can predict what the workforce of the future will look like, one thing is for sure – the application of intelligent technologies is streamlining operations, capturing business intelligence, enhancing workforce capabilities and automating repetitive tasks at breakneck speed.

Forward-thinking organisations are already preparing fast for the next wave of digital transformation.  They are applying fresh thinking to find new ways of working and developing innovative new products and services. 

But to be truly successful, organisations looking to adopt AI and leverage the technology to eliminate routine tasks, cut costs and transform how their businesses operate will also need to prepare their workforces in open and transparent ways. 

Fear of the unknown – the impact of AI on jobs

According to a recent global survey by The Workforce Institute, four-out-of-five employees believe AI will make work more empowering and engaging but say that employers’ silence on the topic is proving a primary driver for fear and concern. 

Indeed, the research found that 58% of organisations had yet to discuss the potential impact of AI on their workforce with employees.  This was despite the fact that the survey found two-thirds of employees would welcome AI if it simplified or automated time-consuming internal processes or helped to better balance their workload. 

Clearly, employees are by and large positive about the use of AI to eliminate low value ‘drudge’ tasks and free them for more meaningful work but, unsurprisingly, say they would be concerned or resistant if they believe AI threatens to change or displace their role – ultimately putting them at risk of losing their job in the near future.

Organisations looking to ride the Industry 4.0 wave will need to get their workers and workplace culture ready for AI.  They risk falling behind if employees fear the next technology shift and are unwilling, resistant or unable to adapt and evolve mindsets to take advantage of the productivity benefits the technology brings.

Leading from the top – engaging in the ‘big’ conversation

Businesses looking to thrive and survive in the era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution will need to surmount one potential yet significant stumbling block – that of empowering the workforce to embrace AI while boosting employee engagement with new ways of working.  That will mean being up front and clear about any potential impact on employees; acknowledging that day-to-day work may change and explaining what this will mean for the employee experience.

Connecting with workers is critical to reducing fear and increasing the successful adoption of AI pilots.  Business leaders will need to play a key role in positioning the use of AI as being vital to supporting the core values, mission or vision of the company – helping employees to understand the multiple ways in which AI will augment their roles and make many jobs easier to undertake.

Getting people comfortable at working with more intelligent machines and data-rich environments is just the start.  Business leaders will also need to empower front-line personnel who are best placed to see the business opportunities enabled by AI to speak up.  Even if that means promoting a more experimental team-based culture or being highly responsive to new opportunities and unique capabilities that humans and machines can bring to different types of work tasks.

Most importantly of all, however, it will mean upskilling and retooling the workforce so that they can use new AI technologies to augment their roles or explore more creative approaches.

Preparing the future workforce – skills training in the AI economy

Many work environments are already being re-aligned as automation replaces or augments everything from manufacturing to banking-related tasks.  Clearly, workers at all levels of the organisation will need to become AI-savvy, learning how to interact with and use this capability expertly.  

Whether that’s supervising virtual machine assistants or training them to operate within real-world parameters, as work lives evolve and are reinvented, organisations will need to ensure they have the right workforce composition and skillsets in place.  Initiating L&D strategies to support and retrain personnel whose jobs have been automated to take on new roles will be crucial.  

But equipping people to shift to different types of work isn’t the only challenge.  As job roles evolve, personnel will need to be upskilled to overcome what’s known as the ‘paradox of automation’ – as we become more reliant on technology, the less inclined we are to take control of exceptional cases when technology fails.  Keeping human skills sufficiently fresh to know when and how to intervene will become increasingly critical.

As AI transforms the job specifications of human workers, new ‘high value’ skills will increasingly come to the fore.  While we don’t yet know what many of these new roles will be, we can expect them to harness the important attributes humans will still hold over machines – creativity, outside-the-box thinking and interpersonal skills.  This could be harnessing the predictive powers of AI to test and augment new ideas, or creating highly interconnected teams that continuously share information to enhance customer relations and the customer experience.  Far from marginal, the possibilities for adaptable employees are endless. 

According to the World Economic Forum, the top competences required to create value in an increasingly automated world will include complex problem-solving skills, critical thinking, cognitive flexibility and people management skills.  In other words, technical skills will likely be secondary.  Developing strong social skills and being an active learner will hold more value, because the demand will be for skills that machines cannot easily replicate – like creativity, emotional intelligence, collaboration and communication. 

Learning – the key to career sustainability 

Clearly, accessible digital skills training will be a must-have for organisations looking to enable enterprise AI adoption.  So too will be the creation of a culture of continuous learning that enables workers to prepare for the next organisational shift and navigate an increasingly complex organisational structure where traditional functional silos and boundaries no longer exist.

In a world where workplace skills are set to change every 18 months or so, learning will become the key to career sustainability.  So, it stands to reason that attracting and retaining talent will also depend on the provision of sufficient opportunities for people to continuously develop their digital and ‘soft’ human skills and professional talents.

As AI becomes increasingly prevalent, organisations will need to upskill and manage their workforces in readiness for adapting to the new realities of Industry 4.0.  For business leaders that will mean positioning AI as a job enhancer, not a job stealer, enabling the cultural changes that not only support the fast and successful adoption of AI but also make it possible to leverage AI to increase productivity and get the most out of new technology investments.

High performance organisations that are striding ahead with implementing AI acknowledge that these technologies are most effective when they complement humans, not replace them.  Focused on worker interests, they’re re-engineering their organisational structures and re-thinking the talent models they utilise.  Identifying the skills their workforces need to take effective advantage of technology and transform business and actively engaging their workforces as they design and implement these new technologies.  

Matt Buskell, AI Specialist and Area Vice President at Skillsoft

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