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Reimagining skills for 4IR

As we enter the Fourth Industrial Revolution, there’s a drastic need to rethink our approach to the skills and talent needed.
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Insaaf Daniels, redPanda Software, says putting in place programmes that upskill and reskill staff in a variety of technological fields is crucial.
Insaaf Daniels, redPanda Software, says putting in place programmes that upskill and reskill staff in a variety of technological fields is crucial.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution or 4IR represents a fundamental shift in the way we live, work, socialise and communicate with each other. It has been heralded as a new era in human development, facilitated by extraordinary technology advances on a par with those witnessed during the first, second and third industrial revolutions. These advances are seeing the physical, digital and biological worlds merge in ways that bring enormous possibilities and advantages, but certain risks too. And 4IR isn’t about technology-driven change alone; it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance for businesses, leaders, governments and citizens to harness the power of technology to create an inclusive, human-centric future.

Skills in demand

What are the top skills needed in the 4IR? According to Merchants’ Dr Sydwell Shikweni, there are many important skills that are required in the 4IR. They can be categorised into two groups, professional skills and technology skills.

Professional skills

  • Language skills
  • Business writing
  • Soft skills (Listening, complex problem-solving, working with others, creativity, critical thinking, decision-making, negotiation, selling and communications, presentation skills)
  • Social media
  • Service orientation
  • Quality control
  • People management

Shikweni says the professional skills are critical because they distinguish the value people offer from the value of robots. “They equip people to work in a hugely different environment to what we had become used to in the last few decades. Take critical thinking as an example. This is a crucial skill for anyone to enable them to discern fact from fiction, especially with the plethora of data we’re exposed to via social media on a daily basis.”

Technology skills

  • Coding
  • Cloud technology
  • User interface design
  • Digital marketing
  • Virtual reality
  • Cybersecurity
  • Big data and data analytics
  • SEO

Shikweni says the technical skills are important because the modern workplace is driven by the use of technologies and people in the workplace must be able to use these technologies to remain relevant and productive.

“Technology vendors have such great shortages of skills in their supply chains that they are being limited in the rollout of these technologies, slowing our global digital transformation, development and growth. Not having these skills will exclude a person from the mainstream of economies globally.”

Adesh Nathalal, education manager at SAS SA, says that over the past two years, the world of work has undergone a seismic shift, and 4IR technologies are already at play, driven in part by the rise in remote working and the acceleration of digital transformation. “Workers are placing even greater value on work/life balance and requiring the jobs they work at to meet more than just their need for a steady paycheque. For their part, employers are also requiring new skills that infuse their organisations with greater resiliency, adaptability, and competitive advantage.”

Nathalal adds that South Africa faces a major challenge in that employment is still a substantial concern. On the one hand, investments in AI and ML technologies could result in a reduction of human resources, particularly in more repetitive types of work that lend themselves to automation. On the other, there’s pressure to keep up with other developing and developed countries. “This requires a balancing act from business leaders between maintaining technology and infrastructure growth, while continuing with job creation drives to grow business and the economy.”

Some experts predict high levels of unemployment as people are displaced by technology, adds Insaaf Daniels, human capital GM at redPanda Software. “The more optimistic forecaster believes that developing countries will be able to skip some of the intermediate stages of industrialisation. The truth is that technology is displacing some jobs while creating others, and other skills are required to maintain employment and employability. Existing personnel should be upskilled whenever possible, rather than hiring new people with new capabilities.”

People management


For Daniels, 4IR not only helps us to learn new abilities, but enables us to improve on existing ones. Businesses would do well to ask how to elaborate on existing talents in the 4IR. For example, marketing has progressed tremendously since the pre-internet era. How do we leverage the metaverse, in which Facebook is investing billions, to reach more people? With AI, you can use the tools to collect data to advertise to your exact target demographic, allowing your business to reach far more people than before, while also increasing your revenue. This is leveraging existing marketing talent and strategic thinking with the power of technological advancements.

Dr Sydwell Shikweni, head of transformation at Merchants, says in the 4IR, people management will change significantly.

“Employers will need to rapidly upskill their incumbent staff to function in the ever-changing environment while they will need to collaborate much more than they do today to uplift the level of digital literacy and professional skills of school leavers if they are to sustain their own growth.”

Dalya Ketz, managing director at Gcubed, says businesses are going to have to look for special skills to remain relevant and focus more on benefits and wellness. Attracting the right skills is going to be key, which means that the company’s package offering will have to be competitive. “Gen Z and Millennials entering the workforce are less focused on the financial aspects of the renumeration. They look more towards the benefits and wellness that their employer or potential employer offers with a view to creating a work/life balance for themselves. Considering this – the brain drain, skills shortage and advancement of 4IR and millennial workforce – businesses will have to fight to attract the skills they require. Therefore, they will have to offer a competitive package to remain relevant. After that, they’ll have to focus on how to retain their top talent. Induction, onboarding, growth, and mentorship will need to be taken into consideration, because replacing a highly skilled employee is neither easy nor inexpensive.”

It’s all about the power


When it comes to the skills needed in the 4IR, Nathalal believes there has been a shift in what can be considered ‘power skills’ – those skills that are increasingly in greater demand now and for the foreseeable future. They tend to fall into the ‘soft’ category of skills, and one of these primary power skills is curiosity. “Defined as the impulse to seek new information and experiences, and explore novel possibilities, curiosity is increasingly valued, as it helps organisations mitigate some of their most pressing challenges.”

Data proficiency is a power skill not just for today’s working world, but also for the emerging and expanding digital economy. Organisations are seeing the amount of potentially useful data increasing exponentially from one year to the next, with global data creation projected to grow to more than 180 zettabytes within the next three years.

Another power skill is cognitive flexibility. Defined as the ability to adapt with creativity, empathy and imagination, cognitive flexibility enables people to generate new ideas, new approaches to existing tasks, and find ways around obstacles. It’s the power skill that, like curiosity, entails the ability to work with others collaboratively, to achieve more than one could alone. The ability to be a good communicator is also a critical power skill, says Nathalal. While this sounds simplistic, in practice, it means the ability to collaborate across several business divisions – such as brand management, product development, marketing and sales, and technical areas such as business intelligence – to identify business challenges and develop solutions.

Putting in place programmes that upskill and reskill staff in a variety of technological fields is crucial. However, equally crucial is instilling a company-wide mindset of a willingness to embrace change.

Insaaf Daniels, redPanda Software

The challenge then becomes how SA organisations ensure they have the skills needed to thrive in the 4IR. “The starting point is to ensure that all employees have a suitable level of digital literacy,” says Shikweni. “This is achieved through internal training and by equipping them with the right tools to digitally enable them to do their work. Then, businesses must identify their key capabilities that drive their completeness and sustainability, identify the digital enablement elements, and deliberately focus on building skills in those area. The technical skills crucial to the 4IR require a lot of practical application of knowledge using technology tools, and businesses must build partnerships with companies that can develop these skills. Business must also implement new ways of training within their organisations such as using incubators and academies in which people can build these skills on the job under supervision from experienced digital leadership. The professional skills should be incorporated into the curricula for all roles and levels of work in a business, and continuously developed. Coaching and mentorship will play an increasingly vital role in the development of these skills as they are not easily learnt on your own.”

Understand your domain


For a company to build the skills it needs to fully realise the potential of 4IR, it must develop an understanding of where its sector is going, how business is evolving, and which skills will likely be the best to service this changing landscape, says Daniels. “Obviously, putting in place programmes that upskill and reskill staff in a variety of technological fields is crucial. However, equally crucial is instilling a company-wide mindset of a willingness to embrace change because if one thing is certain, its that the evolution of the workplace will continue at breakneck speed. To remain relevant, you must evolve with it. The key focus should be upskilling and reskilling existing employees where possible, and placing a high importance on human skills such as critical thinking. They should engage with their staff and find out where they want to grow. Each business will have staff well-versed in how their fields are evolving. There are not enough skills for work being created and so businesses would do well to think creatively about how to develop talent for the future of work. redAcademy is an example of this creativity: it places talented young people into a fast-tracked programme of learning and live environment coding, with the goal of producing workplace-ready talent in a single year.”

In an era where technology has been credited for success and economic growth, it’s often overlooked that technology fundamentally plays a support function. Human capital is vital to the achievement of a company’s vision.

Spha Dlamini, IoT Industry Council

Invest in skills development, build relations with colleges, technikons and universities to build a pipeline of skills into the business world, says Spha Dlamini, chairperson of the IoT Industry Council. “Stop over-thinking, just do it. Experiment, play and learn. Businesses that want to future-proof themselves while 4IR is being implemented need vision and culture. The beauty of evolving markets is the uncertainty they breed and the pursuit of business to achieve greater levels of predictability of future outcomes. There is no way to future-proof oneself, but businesses that can set a clear vision and invest in building a culture that embraces uncertainty will thrive. In an era where technology has been credited for success and economic growth, it’s often overlooked that technology fundamentally plays a support function. Human capital is vital to the achievement of a company’s vision.”

As we see more repetitive functions being automated, no machine, no matter how advanced, can compete with a human being’scapacity for imagination or empathy, adds Nathalal. These qualities, alongside the power skills, will only become more valuable.

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13 Aug
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