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According to some industry experts, we’re on the cusp of another industrial revolution—one that promises to change how we live and work, and to dramatically increase our productivity and efficiency. Klaus Schwab, executive chairman and founder of the World Economic Forum (WEF), has called it the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and has written extensively on the subject.

Attendees await the start of a session on the Fourth Industrial Revolution at the World Economic Forum 2016, Davos

Attendees at a session on the Fourth Industrial Revolution at the World Economic Forum 2016, Davos
Source: Flickr/Benedikt von Loebell

He believes the Fourth Industrial Revolution will affect business in four main ways:

  1. Customer expectations: As customers (whether consumers or businesses) become the epicenter of the economy, the focus on meeting their needs will increase
  2. Product transformation: Products and services are enhanced with digital capabilities—we’re already seeing this with products, such as the “things” in the Internet of Things, which increases their value to customers
  3. Collaborative innovation: Customer experiences, data-based services, and asset performance through analytics will require new approaches to collaboration, especially considering the speed at which innovation and disruption are taking place
  4. Organizational empowerment: Global platforms and new business models will force companies to rethink talent, culture and organizational structure

In Schwab’s view, the inevitable shift from “simple digitization” (the Third Industrial Revolution) to “innovation based on combinations of technologies” (the Fourth Industrial Revolution) will force companies to re-examine the way they operate, and “relentlessly and continually innovate.”

It should be noted that Schwab and the WEF have been challenged regarding their assertion that we are entering a fourth revolution. Critics contend that these technological changes are simply just part of another phase of the Third Industrial Revolution, which began around the middle of last century with electronics, IT and automated production.

No matter what the transformation is ultimately labeled, there are a few factors which are not up for debate—the pace at which technology is advancing is unprecedented, as is its potential. We are indeed moving toward momentous change, and realizing that the potential it promises will not be without challenges. These challenges—in particular, radical changes to how businesses operate and an increasing need for relentless innovation—will affect employees and business methodologies in ways that are difficult to predict.

What does that mean for the end-user, and for the average enterprise? How will work change?

Precise predictions are impossible, but we’re already seeing a glimpse of how it may change with apps and technologies from startups like Slack and IFTTT (short for “If This, Then That”). Slack uses integrations to tame overgrown notification tangles and puts all team activity in one central, searchable place. IFTTT enables users to automate digital and physical tasks with existing or custom-made “recipes.”

Innovation is no longer the domain of startups, either. Enterprise giants like Microsoft and Google also have created apps that use a mix of technologies to change how work is accomplished. Microsoft examples include products like MyAnalytics (formerly Delve Analytics), Editor, and Teams (which competes with Slack). For Google, it is the evolving G Suite and integration with products such as Slack, among other improvements and additions.

The way software is developed and the types of new products we are seeing introduced are strongly aligned with Schwab’s key impacts of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. New software releases show clear focus on the human experience. Products are continually coming to the market with connected capabilities (even light bulbs). And products like Slack and Teams demonstrate how technology is evolving to enhance collaboration. These advances have enormous potential to increase efficiency and productivity, and to change the way people work. Organizational structures are also evolving to support these new ways of working.

Despite all of these advances, many organizations still struggle with ways to embrace digital transformation. A number of surveys have indicated that business leaders doubt the ability of their organizations to adapt and change to meet the new workplace demands.

Which brings us to the Fourth Industrial Revolution’s biggest challenge—and the challenge of any technological advancement that requires human interaction: No matter how big the promise is, and no matter how big an investment you make in the technology, the return you see will be based upon how well people embrace the technology, and how proficiently people can use it.

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