What happens when you bring together the world’s top minds to discuss the future? They talk about robots. And what happens when the idea of artificial intelligence is raised? The purpose of humankind is questioned, and the group comes away without a solution. But, this isn’t the first time we’ve entered into the unknown.
At the World Economic Forum, or “Davos” this year, the theme was “Mastering the Fourth Industrial Revolution”—the proliferation of smart robotics, bio and nanotechnology, and entirely new manufacturing processes and outcomes. As with the previous three industrial revolutions, dramatic technological advances are forcing a turning point in how people cope with and react to each other and their work. Rapid and radical change can lead to uncertainty and fear, and only strong leadership can manage that well.
As Marc Benioff, the founder and CEO of Salesforce.com, said at the recent World Economic Forum: “We are in a leadership crisis. We are not in a technology crisis; we are in a technology revolution. We are going to see technology shifts and changes on a scale that we have never seen on this planet.” Leadership, he laments, is facing rapid, disruptive technological innovations that may worsen the economic prospects of the middle class.
The current political framework no longer works and its shortcomings are likely to lead to a backlash that could turn very nasty. That should concern not just members of a think tank but everyone including the investment bankers of Wall Street and the tech billionaires of Silicon Valley.
People need to be considered early in this process — how do we begin to ask our employees to think now for later? How do we help them cope with the fear they may become “redundant”? Our HR and development systems and internal communications need to get ahead of that fear—we need to speak to employees about what the company wants and needs to do within the context of the rest of the world.
Leaders can be honest — we don’t know exactly what is coming or how it will change the world. Knowing the future is not necessary to prepare for it. Rather we should focus our people on keeping their skills current and improving their ability to shift between jobs. We can get them thinking about changes in their industry and region of the world in a new way. We can frame the revolution in a way that helps our employees thrive on the challenges ahead. Our job as leaders is to anticipate the changes and communicate it in a way that helps employees not only envision their future, but create it.