4IR: What the heck is it and why should I care?

4IR: What the heck is it and why should I care?

By: Lynne Evers Williams


If the acronym “4IR” hasn’t become part of your lexicon in the last 6 months, I can almost guarantee it soon will.  Are you overwhelmed with increasingly more information than you can possibly read, absorb, and act on? Are you observing that you or your organization are expected to produce more and more in shorter and shorter timeframes? If you’ve said yes to either of these, then even if you don’t know it by name, you’ve already been impacted by 4IR!

When I first heard the term 41R in a presentation outlining the recent transfer of executive leadership at the technology company I work for, I was curious enough to turn to my “friends” at Wikipedia. Frankly, I thought that 4IR might be some new technology I could use in my senior learning and development role.  Here is what I found out! Fourth Industrial Revolution  While not a technology per se, I learned that World Economic Forum Chair, Klaus Schwab first used the term Fourth Industrial Revolution or 4IR in early 2016. He later described it in his book by the same name (2017), as largely the significant advances in communication and connectivity. Schwab asserted that thepower to connect billions of people and devices most sets 4IR apart from the purely technological increases that defined the first three industrial revolutions. According to an article in the World Economic Forum’s publication in late 2016, 4IR and its breakthroughs in a number of fields such as robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IOT), 3D printing, and the like, has no historical precedent. In short, the 4IR is evolving at an exponential rate and is disrupting almost every industry around the globe.

Not surprisingly, many consulting firms are now proposing ways they can help client companies prepare their workforces to exploit this disruption. Accenture is certainly among them and in white papers such as their recent “Harnessing Revolution: Creating the Future Workforce Today” Accenture strategists Ellyn Shook and Mark Knickrehm, could not be clearer about the urgency in doing so. Harnessing Revolution  In it, they state that while most CEOs rank workforce high on their list of priorities, they’re not translating concern into action. As a result, the skills gap is becoming an ever-widening chasm. Shook and Knickrehm offered the following relatively startling estimate; today 40 percent of employers report talent shortages.

Fast forward to last month when I was beginning to contemplate how I could translate concern into action by leading my learning and development colleagues to figure out how we could address an anticipated significant skill gap.  Imagine my surprise then, when I received my November 2018 ATD magazine (TD) and found the cover story to be “Revolution 4.0:  Does your company have what it needs to compete in the Fourth Industrial Revolution?” I thought I was so forward thinking; was I already late to the game?

Training is not specifically called out in the TD article starting on p.26, but writer Ryann K. Elis asserts that “talent development professionals will need to be proactive in three key trends: agility, artificial intelligence, and using culture as a competitive advantage.”  No doubt anyone involved in increasing the human potential will have a significant role in harnessing and exploiting what the 4IR has to offer.

While 4IR is not a specific technology as I originally thought, it does represent an unprecedented opportunity for those of us in learning & development!  Not only will we use the new technologies we will soon have access to in our learning solutions, but the velocity, scope, and system impact of 4IR will require significant and ongoing training to maximize ROI. Why should you care? As a learning and development professional, I am confident YOU will have a very key role in keeping your company competitive and relevant.  What are you doing about it today?

For your reflection:

  • Contributors to the Accenture white paper assert that 4IR will have such an impact on reskilling that CEO’s should assume the role of Chief Learning Officer in their respective companies. Is this an over-reaction? Why or why not?
  • I believe that even the digital natives entering the workforce will be ill-equipped to deal with the rate of change, and need significant training to deliver the promise of 4IR.   What do you think?
  • The author of the Nov 28, 2018, TD Magazine article referenced here asks: Does your company have what it needs to compete in the Fourth Industrial Revolution? How would you respond to this right now?


Ellis, R.K (2018, November) Revolution 4.0:  Does your company has what it needs to compete in the Fourth Industrial Revolution? TD Magazine. Volume 72, Number 11. Pages 26-31.

Fourth Industrial Revolution.  Retrieved 1 November from              https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fourth_Industrial_Revolution

Shook, E. and Knickrehm, M. (2018) Harnessing Revolution: Creating the Future Workforce       Today.  Retrieved from:  https://www.accenture.com/us-    en/_acnmedia/A2F06B52B774493BBBA35EA27BCDFCE7.pdf#zoom=50

Schwab, K. (2017). The Fourth Industrial Revolution. World Economic Forum. New York, NY: Crown Publishing Group.

World Economic Forum.  Retrieved  1 November from





  • I had not previously heard of the acronym 4IR, so I was drawn to this post to learn more. IoT is an important factor at the company that I work for and as an organization, we are identifying ways to prepare the frontline workforce to position IoT devices to the appropriate profile of customer. This requires change management as well as learning and development. There are high level learning objectives like being able to demonstrate understanding of the technology, effectively position devices and troubleshooting steps. Being in a technology industry consistently maintains challenges for the organization, both for developers and those that focus on people development to be able to be productive with and provide customer support for technological advances.

  • The shelf life of many skills has shrunk already! Jobs that once paid good money don’t exist. This is nothing new but the 4IR does point to some unique skills we may need and some that don’t exist yet. If the last industrial revolution is any indication of the mass amount of skills that will die out we should absolutely have our leaders plan on assuming the role of learning officer. Technology is changing exponentially and we have seen the impact of those changes prior to this shift. Imagine explaining to a farmer from 1930s, what Customer Relationship Management salesmen are. It would be hard! These shift in job skills are coming faster because the technology is growing faster. It is best to be prepared.

Leave a Reply to Joe Cancel reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s