The 4th Industrial Revolution: Is HR Late to the Party?


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To start things off – I am no expert in technology or Human Resources. However, having spoken to a range of HR practitioners over the last few years, I have some thoughts on what the “4th Industrial Revolution” is going to mean for the HR profession, and the world of work more generally.

Why should HR professionals care about the technologies fueling the 4th Industrial Revolution?

During a recent conversation with American podcast host Joe Rogan, Elon Musk presented the idea that almost every organization today could already be considered a cybernetic organism. That we are connected and integrated with technology to such a level already, that to remove it from the workplace would cause a fundamental collapse in the way practically all modern societies operate. This isn’t a value judgement on the merits or flaws of modernity, but more of a statement that the merger of people and machines isn’t some 2060 utopia – it already exists. It doesn’t just exist in robot-staffed mega-factories. It exists in the digital interfaces we all connect to at work: emails, intranet, blogs, applications… it’s all a fundamental part of our economy.

Now, it’s not difficult to see from here where technologies are leading us. Advanced AI, cognitive, blockchain, robotics (and whatever hyped technologies are being crafted now) are going to be established as the new fundamentals quicker than you can present your quarterly reports and yearly budgets. If this possibility alone doesn’t move you as an HR professional to act, then I am not sure what will. Yes, some industries and jobs will be impacted earlier than others, as your Marketing and Advertising departments will tell you. But guess what, it’s coming to everyone. Early adopters of technologies will not only be better equipped to deal with market changes as they arise, but will be the ones that shape the economic landscape. You may have to adopt, test, implement, and fail fast – but that’s at least a potentially useful mindset to have in this environment.

However, it’s not all sunshine and roses for those on the cutting edge. Like any major shifts, there’s going to potentially be some collateral damage. Getting up to speed requires that HR professionals don’t just ask to be brought into 2019, they demand to be. This may cause some friction and incur some costs that are tough to bear initially, but are essential to business success in the long run. This wasn’t intended to be a hit piece aimed at HR professionals who have been slow to jump into digital transformations. More like a push in the direction of preparedness. So what are some of the technologies (already in existence) that HR professionals need to be well versed in to thrive in the era of the 4th Industrial Revolution?

  • Artificial Intelligence & Robotics (the composition of the workforce will never be the same)
  • Blockchain & Cryptocurrencies (the way we do business is going to be very different)
  • Internet of Things (the world around us will be more connected than most of us can imagine)
  • Nanotechnology (as technologies expand, they’ll contract too)
  • Analytics (everything around us will soon be measurable, able to be analyzed, and used to fuel business insights)

Ok, what’s the deal for HR?

So what’s the upside to all of this drama? Well, it’s not too late to bring HR and the organization up to speed. There is a huge (and I mean huge) range of free resources out there that can help you to see where technologies are pushing the economy and society. There are articles everywhere, YouTube videos by the thousands, and websites dedicated to exactly these questions. There are plenty of academic resources too, so you can take the word of the people who have a much clearer grasp of the topic than I do. It’s not too late for HR professionals to learn about the implications of the 4th Industrial Revolution, from all the technical to ethical questions.

In my estimation, HR as a function is perhaps 5-10 years behind the technology that’s out there (with some companies as exceptions, of course). It’s not just a question of budget, size, and expertise – it’s also a question of awareness, preparedness, and mindset. I am not simply suggesting that all of the programs, systems, and tools you’re using now aren’t useful – but if you aren’t at least cognizant of how the technologies that already exist will impact you, your company, and society, then you’re inevitably going to be blindsided and miss the party altogether. Despite this, there’s still an opportunity that HR professionals can take control of the digital transformation of their respective organizations.

As many leading HR professionals such as Josh Bersin and Dave Ulrich have noted, HR is uniquely and powerfully positioned to make the most of digital changes. They are the ones who can plan, strategize, lead, and develop an organization’s digital capabilities. Nonetheless, it’s perfectly reasonable to have serious reservations about where all the technology is going – I sure do. As HR professionals, you must be able to understand the impact of these technologies on your organization, and perhaps more importantly, the people you are responsible for. This is not a time for opacity – no amount of new tools alone will help you to become a more successful and ethical partner to people and society.

HR professionals should not be threatened by technologies per se, they should be threatened by other professionals who have the greater skill sets to deal with AI, robotics and the rest. As Mark Mortensen stated at The HR Congress 2018; “HR is dead, long live HR”. If you are a people professional, it’s time to adapt yourself to a technological world that’s evolving more rapidly than at any time in human history previously. I’ll let you judge whether or not technologies are going to be a good thing for humanity. But the reality is that technologies are only going to increase in their transformational abilities at an exponential rate. HR has to act quickly to make sure they harness this potential for the right reasons.


The 2nd Digital HR Summit Amsterdam, April 2-3 will feature a selection of sessions that will explore the implications of Digital technologies on HR and the business in general. Make sure you follow The HR Congress Blog to stay posted on all the latest news, updates and content from the world of work!

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