In his book The Fourth Industrial Revolution, Klaus Schwab,1 founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, the International Organisation for Public-Private Cooperation, discusses four distinct periods of industrial revolution throughout history, including the one the world is experiencing now. Schwab defines an industrial revolution as the appearance of “new technologies and novel ways of perceiving the world [that] trigger a profound change in economic and social structures.”
Per Schwab’s definition, the first globally recognised industrial revolution introduced steam power, completely changing the way humans approached transportation and, importantly, trade. The age of science and mass-production followed as the Second Industrial Revolution, and then came the Digital Revolution. Now, we are beginning another phase of dramatic technological expansion and social change: the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).
The Fourth Industrial Revolution is centred around the idea that manufacturing technologies and processes make way for automation, data, the Internet of Things, cloud computing and artificial intelligence (AI).
Industrial revolutions provide a helpful context for the evolution of work — or what might be more clearly described as the “evolution of the employee.” Jacob Morgan described the concept of our current working world in his 2014 book, The Future of Work,2 this way:
“It’s important to note that when discussing these industrial revolutions, we’re discussing the modern age. The evolution of the working human in recent decades has been remarkable, and is only continuing to accelerate.
“In fact, we have never seen work or the working human evolve this fast — ever. This rapid shift in work practices presents the greatest opportunity in human history for an organisation’s people leaders to keep up with and influence major change.
Finally, we are called to design work for people, not profit, trusting profit will follow.
Several frameworks exist to deliver on the promise of the evolution of work. One of these is diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) work that has significant, measurable impact. Another is data-driven workforce experience design. There is also a common framework centred around aligning intelligent talent strategies with business strategy, minding the skills gaps as you future-fit your workforce for sustainability.
One of our favourite frameworks comes from a book co-authored by Chris Shipley and Heather McGowan, The Adaptation Advantage: Leading the Empowered Workforce.3 The book reminds us that change happens exponentially over time, meaning that at any given moment, we’re experiencing the slowest rate of change we’ll experience for the rest of our lives.
Technology will drive incredible innovation through atomisation, automation and augmentation, but this isn’t where we’ll find our advantage. Instead, our greatest competitive advantage will come from what we learn to do with the extra human capacity this provides. True innovation will come through connecting human performance to human purpose. Clearly and traditionally defined careers won’t make sense when we start asking why we work instead of how we work. This evolving question— not the latest AI application — coupled with agile learning about work and leadership will change the nature of work.
So that’s the crux: The shift of work, the workforce, HR and all its supporting technology have everything to do with a freshly empowered workforce. This isn’t about a technological evolution at all; it’s about a human revolution driven by a shift of employee power.
Technology will follow suit, but we will know it differently. We’ll know it as the Digital Revolution.
How does the Digital Revolution support the evolution of being human? First, to understand “digital,” we must understand the difference between being digital and doing digital.
Being digital is both your foundation and multiplier regarding workforce experience. It includes design consideration in the tools, systems, processes and programmes people use to do jobs. Those tools and systems are designed to meet people where they are, driving natural human addiction rather than unnatural technology adoption in the flow of work. Digital solutions are designed to be frictionless, seamless, intuitive, and iterative and are built for continuous improvement. Digital solution design is high-touch digital (almost entirely automated and intelligent) when it can be and high-touch human (analogue) when it must be — and knows the difference.
Being digital is much more than the digitalisation of processes or a technology strategy. The practice of being digital looks at all the ways in which work can be accomplished and then sorts those into “hands,” “heads” and “hearts” categories. It automates as much hands work as possible, provides digital assistance for the heads work and applies human-centred design thinking to improve workforce experience, so hearts work can focus on being purposeful and impactful.
Human resources and people leaders are called to disrupt work to meet the business’s performance demands and sustainability needs while also exceeding the reasonable and evolved expectations of humans. These goals are not mutually exclusive; they are symbiotic efforts through which organisations learn to design for the whole person, including health, wealth and career.
Digital is empathy at scale
People-first organisations in the now of work are:
- Evolving their talent and DEI strategies
- Addressing pay and well-being
- Enabling a skills culture and providing talent agency
- Conducting fluid workforce planning fuelled by talent intelligence
- Deconstructing jobs and rapidly shifting from counting heads to making people count
This is more than people supply chain management; this is human performance driven by, not replaced by, digital acceleration.
Being digital is human-centred, technology-enabled experience design. It is empathy at scale. Doing digital, by contrast, is a bare-boned technology implementation and leaves 90% of the desired value on the table.
What can HR do?
Although digital transformation touches every part of the organisation, human resources (HR) remains the only function of the business with the word “human” in its name. Therefore, HR and people leaders have an imperative to become strategic advisers to the organisation when it comes to disrupting work, learning to be digital, and leveraging human-centred design thinking to activate and automate humans and work.
This requires a fundamental shift in our understanding of workforce experience; measuring how work gets done and how work makes people feel; and designing with humans at the centre of data, technology and business strategies. You owe this experience to every part of your worker population: candidate, full- and part-time employee, gig worker and contingent labour, from the front line to the knowledge worker.
The talent landscape has undergone drastic technological and societal shifts. Digital transformation must embrace the concept of changefulness.
Digital transformation is an infinity loop
What can the C-suite do?
HR is only part of the C-suite. The rest of the C-suite must immediately understand the applications and implications of generative AI, the most important technological advance in decades. Generative AI has the potential to disrupt industries and jobs, promising both competitive advantage and creative destruction. It can unlock productivity, creativity and skills, transforming how we all work. Hypothetically, AI could replace the equivalent of 300 million jobs, so organisations need to factor its advance into their talent and business sustainability plans. They can do this by understanding the use cases that will make a difference in their organisations or industries, knowing how this will impact their organisational structure and talent, and establishing guardrails and legal protections in their business policies.
Considering and alongside the AI revolution, there must be a collective effort to identify and activate hidden and untapped pools of talent in a shrinking global labour market. A major component of this will require flipping talent management on its head and finally sorting out a skills strategy. Again, intelligence, automation and experience design will be vital to unlocking the digital advantage.
What can vendors do?
Workforce technology vendors can drive incredible innovation. However, to best serve the human evolution and digital disruption of work, software and service providers should align product development to organisations learning how to be digital. Software for the sake of software will do nothing to evolve work; the digital transformation of work means work should look different when it’s done. And, importantly, it’s never done.
Partnership is key. Stop delivering products and features, and start delivering solutions and programmes. A transformation journey must be sequenced and prioritised for long-term success and sustainability. So too must your solution delivery and measures of success.
What is Mercer | Leapgen doing?
Mercer | Leapgen provides digital HR strategy services to enterprises to connect each of these dots. We must build our transformation and change muscle to unlearn and rethink how we approach work, talent and technology. We teach enterprises how to be digital, not just do digital. We leverage human-centred design thinking, a whole-person approach to workforce experience and solution design, and changefulness to help enterprises create digital advantages.
We also provide analyst, research, advisory and marketing services to vendors to ensure the digital conversation is two-sided. Innovation requires fresh thinking by enterprises and strategic alignment with their technology and deployment partners. We teach workforce technology solution providers how to align digital solutions with the broadest business challenges they face. This work translates into more relevant market positioning, value-based storytelling and increased market share. This is the digital advantage gained by HR tech vendors that stop implementing software and start deploying digital capabilities for the enterprise.
Conclusion and wrap
2 Morgan J. The Future of Work, New York: Wiley, 2014.
3 McGowan H and Shipley C. The Adaptation Advantage, New York: Wiley. 2020.