The role of human resource professionals in navigating the new world of work by Deseré Kokt

September 19, 2019
To (queen) bee or not to bee? by Prof. Charlene Gerber and Prof. Anton Schlechter
October 16, 2019

1. Introduction

Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) technologies has a profound impact on humans in both the social and organisational spheres. Throughout human history, technological advances have brought about social change; impacting the ways in which humans live and work. This is no different for 4IR. Although it is not clear how the various 4IR technologies will influence the future world of work, it is imperative that organisations and specifically human resource professionals, prepare for the way forward (Schwab, 2016). From a human resource perspective, human-work interaction has been irrevocably altered by digitalisation and virtualisation. Even more profound is the fact that 4IR technologies enable wider connectivity where devices and machines communicate continuously and in ever-increasing numbers. 4IR technologies has morphed from the Digital Revolution (or the Third Industrial Revolution) of the 1970s, where people and information technology (IT) interacted to a complex, inter-connected system of devices that is transforming production processes and business models on a global scale. No country or industry will be left unaffected by these sweeping changes.

The objective of this article is to reflect on the various ways in which some 4IR technologies have already changed the world of work. By reflecting on pertinent examples of where this is already happening, it aims to sensitise organisations and especially human resource professionals on what could possibly be expected by a future workforce. It also relates the pertinent roles human resource practitioners need to fulfill in facilitating the change process.

2. 4IR and the general business environment

Technologies associated with 4IR is likely to become more pronounced in the future as they proliferate and become more advanced. This especially applies to current networks that still need to evolve in order to support the massive amounts of devices that is estimated to be connected to the internet in the future. As the technologies associated with 4IR is aimed at making organisations more effective and efficient, it is projected that tasks, especially repetitive tasks, will be replaced rather than jobs. The types of jobs humans will perform will subsequently evolve to reflect this new reality.

In this sense, the general business environment, has already been altered by especially Artificial Intelligence (AI), Robotics and the Internet of Things (IoT). The section below will elaborate on applicable examples.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) involves software systems that are able to make appropriate decisions without being programmed to do so. AI encompasses human intelligence simulated by machines. This implies that machines can learn, reason and self-correct. Companies can use AI to collect and make sense of big data (e.g. extracting usable information from large data sets, computationally) which can for example assist them in understanding the broad behavioural patterns of consumers. Examples of AI that is already being applied include spam filters (where unwanted emails do not land in someone’s inbox), Googles AI-powered predictions (Google has incorporated deep learning into its search engine), ridesharing apps like Uber and robo-readers. Robo-readers can read and grade learner’s essays and can be utilised by schools and other learning institutions. AI has also impacted other areas, notably speech translation, medical diagnoses and gaming.

As AI is continuously changing the ways in which tasks are performed, it implies that individual employees would need to be re-skilled in order to perform augmented jobs. This does not mean humans will be excluded from the workplace, rather that there will be a more prominent emphasis on performing important, non-repetitive and creative tasks. This will place a greater emphasis on the soft skills of individuals, specifically interpersonal skills, communication skills and inter-cultural skills. Managers and leaders also need to cultivate these skills in addition to cognitive flexibility and emotional intelligence (Bolick, 2019). This implies a different perspective on work in a diverse, interconnected and highly technological environment where individual employees need to engage with each other and with machines on a continuous basis. AI has changed the ways in which tasks are performed and it is projected to create new jobs in its wake.

Some organisational challenges related to AI include the following:

  • It can aggravate the already pertinent skills gaps, especially if highly skilled gig workers (individuals that work on a part-time basis) are brought in to assist organisations (Deloitte, 2018).
  • It is likely that middle/lower level jobs will be most affected. Management needs to be proactive in dealing with this issue.

Robotics are programmable machines used to perform repetitive and often dangerous tasks. Advanced robotics involve devices that act largely autonomous, while it can interact with people and the environment by means of interconnected sensors. It encompasses a fusion of the inter-related engineering disciplines of electronic, mechanical and information engineering, as well as computer science. Jobs related to these fields will be in high demand in the future.

A good example of robots used in warehousing is They have introduced machines to scan and box items to be sent to customers. Machines can do this at a rate of between 600 and 700 boxes per hour, four to five times faster than doing it manually. They also employ robots to deliver large stack of products to human workers. While this is already happening, Statt (2019) projects that fully automated shipping warehouses are still many years away, mainly due to cost and the time-consuming programming required. This shows the trajectory of future developments.

Some projected future jobs that AI and robots are able to create include the following:

  • Data detectives – complex clerical and administrative work involving data such as investigative analysts and records technicians.
  • AI assisted healthcare technicians – systems that analyses healthcare data to predict ICU transfers, clinical workflows and patient’s risks of infection.
  • AI business development managers – managers that will assist organisations in understanding the adoption of AI and the challenges it poses. It also involves being able to interact with various stakeholders (such as internal teams and customers) about the adoption of AI.

Internet of things (IoT) implies the interconnection of computing devices that send and receive data to and from everyday objects via the internet (ranging from coffee machines to security systems). This can for example apply to manufacturing in the following way: business models need to transform from selling products to providing a comprehensive, well-managed service. As products become assets that can be connected to the internet, it can be monitored through the connectivity of various devices. Wi-Fi, cellular and Bluetooth connectivity has been superseded by power-efficient sensors using cloud-based analytics, 4G and even super-efficient 5G connectivity (Frangos, 2017). This means that remote locations can also utilise the technology.

3. The role of human resource professionals

Shaking hands of a businessperson and a robot.

Based on the above discussion, it is clear than human resource professionals have a pertinent role to play in being change agents for the future world of work. The following issues are relevant:

  • Human resource professionals need to have good comprehension of the various 4IR technologies and how it is likely to impact on future talent management practices.
  • Human resources professionals further need to have a macro view in terms of what is happening in the broader business context. They need to be well informed about trends and challenges that is likely to influence their organisation/industry/country. Having a silo mentality is not an option in the new world of work.
  • Apart from managing the impact of massive technological change, human resource professionals also need to manage enhanced diversity on all organisational levels, which is a consequence of increased globalisation.
  • In the face of massive technological change, human resource professionals need to provide stability and a people-centered approach, with a pertinent focus on developing the soft skills of employees to enable them to work in an augmented, inter-connected and flexible environment.
  • Human resource professionals need to guide managers and leaders to develop their own skills and abilities in accordance with new expectations.

4. Summary

Although the real impact of 4IR is difficult to gauge, organisations and specifically human resource professionals need to be proactive in planning for the future. The paper delineated some pertinent examples of 4IR irrevocably changing the world of work and proposed ways in which human resource professionals can act as change agents in this new reality.


Bolick, C. 2019. How can porject managers prepare for the Fourth Industrial Revolution? 29 August 2019.

Deloitte. 2018. Preparing tomorrow’s workforce for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. 20 August 2019.

Frangos, J. 2017. The Internet of Things will power the Fourth Industrial Revolution: Here’s how. 29 August 2019.

Schwab, K. 2016. The Fourth Industrial Revolution: what it means and how to respond. World Economic Forum. 20 August 2019.

Statt, N. 2019. Amazon says fully automated shipping warehouses are at least a decade away. 6 September 2019.