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The 4th Industrial Revolution and what this means for developing soft skills

Society for Industrial and Organisational Psychology of South Africa
Date: 8 July 2019


The 4th Industrial Revolution and what this means for developing soft skills.

Does the rise of the robotic age mean a decrease in the need for soft skills?


There is no doubt that Automation and Artificial Intelligence (AI) which are synonymous with the 4th Industrial Revolution, have already and will increasingly disrupt work, workers and the workplace.  The rise of a digital era has many techno-optimists very excited about the possibilities, for example, Accenture posited that AI alone could double the growth rate of the South African economy and positively impact profitability rates by as much as 38% by 20351.  The techno-pessimists, however, are concerned about the dark side of a digital and technological revolution. Are their apprehensions well founded in terms of what this means for job creation and future skill readiness?

The World Economic Forum (WEF) in their 2018 The Future of Jobs Report cites 50 percent of the companies surveyed as saying that they suspect a reduction in their workforce by 2022 due to automation2.   In a South African context, Accenture estimates that ‘One in three jobs is at risk of total automation in South Africa within the next decade’, which translates into nearly six million jobs3.  We can see South Africa has already felt the initial waves of change with concept stores by Pick n Pay and Mr Price but what else could the future hold.  Adrian Furnham highlights the problem with the subject of futurology based on his cursory analysis, stating that in many cases past predictions have failed or more problematic for him, where certain technological advances were not predicted that completely changed the game.   He nevertheless appreciates the need for considering the future as opposed to not doing so and using the best available information at our disposal to guide our thinking. This post was not intended as a consideration of whether or how automation and technological advancements will change jobs but what skills may be required in this new uncertain world of work touched on above.

countries like South Africa where labour is expensive and predominantly physical vs. knowledge-based will be ripe for disruption.

The Mckinsey Global Institute (MGI) has highlighted the fact that automation and AI as poster-kids for the 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR), will change work in the future and the skills required.  The WEF report suggests that jobs requiring physical and manual skills are likely to be the hardest hit by automation2.  Furthermore, countries like South Africa where labour is expensive and predominantly physical vs. knowledge-based will be ripe for disruption.  What then are the potential skill requirements? Should the predominant emphasis be on technical skills such as programming at the expense of physical work or more importantly soft skills?  Firstly, it should be noted that the increased automation of tasks may play out differently in various industries, for example, physical skills in health care are likely to remain a need despite declines in manufacturing.  Secondly, the MGI suggests that demand for technical skills will indeed increase, rising by 55 percent and representing 17 percent of hours worked by 2030, up from 11 percent in 2016. However, what is interesting is that the report suggests that the demand for social and emotional skills will also rise, by an estimated 24 percent4.  This may be a smaller increase overall but because this will make up 22 percent of hours worked it nevertheless remains an important indicator of significance despite the reality of living in a digital/robotic age.  Similarly, the WEF report highlights certain roles that are expected to grow in the lead up to 2022, roles that leverage distinctively ‘human’ skills, these include but are not limited to; Customer Service Workers, Sales and Marketing Professionals, Training and Development, People and Culture, and Organisational Development Specialists as well as Innovation Managers2.  In their survey of more than 3,000 business leaders in seven countries, MGI noted that there is a shift to more cross-functional and team-based work4.  At an anecdotal level, having recently engaged with one of the largest FMCG company’s in the world, it was clear that they work extensively in a cross-functional manner within a very complex environment, in teams on a per project basis and often Virtually due to geographic dispersion.  In many ways this is indicative of future ways of working, but for the 160+ highly competent individuals who were included in this engagement and who had incredible technical expertise, what they were saying time and again was that influence (among other soft skills) was a core-criteria for getting work done in a flatter structure, speaking to the importance of soft skills for advancing workflow efficiencies.

Despite nearly 50 percent of companies surveyed in the WEF report expecting that automation will lead to job losses by 2022 based on current job descriptions, 38 percent expected to equip their workforce for new productivity-enhancing roles with over a quarter of all companies expecting automation to lead to the creation of new roles2. What we can make of all this based on some sound projections is that the 4IR is unlikely to negate the need for more jobs nor the need to focus on and develop soft skills despite the context of rising automation and digitisation which is cause for cautious optimism.  At the same time for us as HR and psychology professionals, the biggest risk would be to ignore how people will be impacted in the workplace by the changes hurtling our way and also to neglect the need of highlighting the increased importance of soft skills, building this capacity alongside technical skills.


1- Accenture Artificial Intelligence Is South Africa Ready: Available at https://www.accenture.com/_acnmedia/Accenture/Conversion-Assets/DotCom/Documents/Local/za-en/Accenture-AI-South-Africa-Ready.pdf

2- World Economic Forum Future of Jobs Report 2018: Available at https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-future-of-jobs-report-2018

3- Accenture Reworking the Revolution: Available at https://www.accenture.com/_acnmedia/PDF-69/Accenture-Reworking-the-Revolution-Jan-2018-POV.pdf

4- Mckinsey Global Institute. Skill Shift: Automation and the Future of the Workforce: Available at https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/future-of-work/skill-shift-automation-and-the-future-of-the-workforce

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