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Achieving 4IR goals hinges on skills development, job creation

Achieving 4IR goals hinges on skills development, job creation

Predictions about technology are at best speculative. Even recently we saw two of our planet's brightest and most successful minds, Jack Ma and Elon Musk, disagree fundamentally about where technology is leading us. They were specifically debating Artificial Intelligence (AI): Ma sees a future where AI will make humans live better and longer with less effort, while Musk fears AI is quite capable of leading down darker paths.

Insofar who is correct, we can't say. Both sides present well-considered arguments and only time will tell which of their insights turn out to be correct. However, there is no doubt that change is already happening. This is creating two acute societal pressures that must be addressed: current skills development and preparation for the jobs of tomorrow.

Just as with AI, these are well-debated topics and I don't wish to elaborate on their points anymore. Instead, I'd like to look more closely at two areas that can provide relief to the situation, and how these relate to supporting the Public Sector in South Africa and other markets.

Reskilling is the most immediate challenge. As businesses and institutions become more attuned to the connected world, adopting new systems and adjusting business models, the pace of change is accelerating. Ten years ago, it was still a novelty to have a smartphone, today businesses use them to help employees sign in.

Delivering those capabilities need skills that were traditionally established by upskilling small groups of people related to a project. This is where the solution provider comes in, brings its people and transfers some of that capability to the paying customer. But if we want to keep pace with the adoption rate developing in the market, the skills and digital literacy of the current workforce need to be expanded at a much larger scope.

The more distant challenge, but one that requires attention now, is the emergence of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). Just as with debates on AI, there is a lot of disagreement about 4IR. However, the rush towards its underlying technologies is exactly what creates the skills challenge. Whatever we call the transformation of the future, our children need to be ready for it.

South Africa has made some headway to teach about the 4IR future, such as driving more connectivity to schools and more devices into the hands of students. There is also more activity among technology companies to promote interest and skills in the field among school goers. Yet it is not at the scale to confidently pursue a future skills agenda.

Both these challenges overlap in their solutions and share a very specific stakeholder, the Public Sector. Government's relationship with education is very clear. The policies it implements, and their resulting programmes are where the next generation will be enlightened.

The same applies to the current workplace. In the US, nearly half of businesses and employees already use some kind of AI. The future is here and it's up to the Government's policies to direct how we can respond to them. So, what are we doing to help the Public Sector be equipped to make its decisions?

Technology solution providers can play a bigger role in these matters. More providers can pursue aggressive graduate programmes that train students in both technology and business skills. There should also be greater effort to expose Public Sector leaders to the technologies impacting citizens. Invite middle and senior managers to visit innovation centres and create short but impactful programmes to walk them through the technologies changing the world.

When the smartest people in the room can't agree about the future, it's easy to become despondent about the scale of the challenge or complacently believe it will all just work out. Skills and education can be addressed. Jobs can be created. But only if technologists play a more active role in enlightening society's decision-makers about AI, blockchain, security and the other ingredients for a tomorrow that's already starting today.

By Saurabh Kumar, CEO of In2IT Technologies South Africa.

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