Why leadership skills – not tech – are the most important asset in driving 4IR growth

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Written by Stephen Wyatt on 31 August 2021 in Opinion
Opinion

4IR success is about people - says Stephen Wyatt in a piece to complement his new book.

In 2018 the Financial Times shouted about 'Britain’s Productivity Crisis', highlighting the fact that productivity growth in the UK had stalled since the early 2000s. Sadly, the situation continues today. UK labour productivity is approx. 30% lower than in Germany, the US and even France.

The UK must find ways to return to productivity growth in order to close the gap with our neighbours and competitors. Post-Brexit, it’s a question not only of prosperity but of economic survival.

There are two principle pathways for increasing productivity; either employing fewer people, at the same wage level, to produce the same value of output, or accelerating growth in the value of output produced with approx. the same number of people employed.

Most people, emotionally, would prefer to aim for the second of these two options, yet, failing to achieve this, may resort to the former. Stagnation of wages maintains the wealth gap (perhaps better termed as the ‘poverty divide’) that blights our society. Higher levels of productivity growth create the possibility for real wage growth.

In the pursuit of productivity growth through higher value output, the two dominant levers are to deploy new technology and to adopt new practices of management and leadership.

These are also the two dominant forces in the ongoing Fourth Industrial Revolution. Like all industrial revolutions, the fourth is creating huge shifts in value creation and capture (think about Tesla, valued at $650bn vs General Motors valued at $90bn).

Solving ‘Britain’s Productivity Crisis’ is possible. It requires adopting the management and leadership practices of the Fourth Industrial Revolution

The opportunity is to set a vision of the post-Fourth Industrial Revolution operations of your organisation, firmly grasp the levers of new technology and new approaches to management and leadership, and to transform the operations and organisation of your company to create and capture significantly higher value – and by so doing, catalyse productivity growth.

Forward leaning, expansionist thinking generates energy and creates possibilities and growth; whereas an overly conservative, efficiency optimisation mindset often leads to stagnation. 

Of the two levers, it is most important to lead with new approaches to management and leadership rather than new technologies. Adopting new technologies under the guidance of traditional management thinking limits the benefits achieved; emphasising efficiencies of the ‘as is’ rather than creating new possibilities.

Imagine the leaders of your organisation making the commitment to retain the individuals and the total number employed whilst achieving a 30% uplift in productivity over the next two years.

What would they then need to do?

Strategically there would be a choice about pursuing greater value or greater volume. There would then probably be a look externally and across the network of the company at what new technologies and new working practices could be adopted in order to achieve the greater volume or value without increased manpower.

Given these choices they would then consider what roles, organisation structure and supervision-governance-coordination mechanisms would be required to make the business hum and to leverage the new technology’s full potential.

Implementing the changes would need to be done at speed for the results to be achieved within the two year window, which would necessitate multiple teams to work in parallel to their ‘day-jobs’. There would also be the need to be intimate with the employees; as these changes will not happen at speed unless the workers are inspired with the vision and feel supported to make the changes.

Support will be required to upskill individuals and for their wellbeing (for example, to manage the anxiety or stress that might ensue from the changes occurring at pace and the upskilling).

This vignette touches on the key skills of management and leadership, required for success in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

  • First, the ability to set, communicate and engage multiple stakeholders in an inspiring, purposeful vision. This necessitates establishing a forward-leaning strategy and then to implement change at pace. In so doing it is necessary to constantly pursue the two goals of delivering the performance results required today whilst working at speed to implement the technologies and the working practices required for success tomorrow. 
  • Second, the ability to see and seize opportunities to enhance the business practices and to adjust operations and organisation, in a timely manner. This necessitates being able to spot and evaluate the benefits of adopting potential new technologies and working practices; being able to seize on opportunities and replicate solutions, and; being able to reconfigure activities and resources at-pace.
  • Third, the ability to partner with the workforce to achieve the goals, including the desired rise in productivity. This requires retaining and motivating workers; being empathetic, flexible and supportive, adopting an approach which is human-centred. Retraining and upskilling will be required with a focus of achieving on-the-job behaviour changes. Many staff will be required to also work in fluid teams, with a project performance orientation.

Thriving in the Fourth Industrial Revolution requires mastering these three sets of skills, as the cycle of evolution does not stop when the two-year objectives have been achieved. Whereas previously change was characterised as ‘Unfreeze – Move – Refreeze’ or the journey of moving “From ‘A’ to ‘B’”, now Continuous Evolution is required.

Solving ‘Britain’s Productivity Crisis’ is possible. It requires adopting the management and leadership practices of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. These practices include the desire and ability to effectively adopt new technologies and working practices. It is not per-se the technologies that will make the difference.

Let’s reinvigorate the development of managers and leaders for the Fourth Industrial Revolution – it’s a matter of national importance, and firm survival.

 

About the author

Stephen Wyatt is the author of Management and Leadership in the 4th Industrial Revolution published by Kogan Page, available online and from all good bookshops.

 

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