Human resources disrupted in the 4IR

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We have entered into the era of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) and we are experiencing its effects, albeit some are not as plainly apparent as others. Something most of us are familiar with is interacting with our favourite digital assistant. And we are all quite aware of how this technology is assisting us. What about the technological impacts that are not so apparent? For instance, you may have received a message from your bank at some point indicating that a fraudulent transaction had been detected on your account and subsequently halted. But what may have not been apparent was the machinery behind it all that used sophisticated algorithms to detect the fraudulent behaviour without any human intervention. Technology has undeniably become a part of us and is changing our lives in ways we are only beginning to understand.   

Work is certainly not immune to this technological disruption and most aspects of work itself are rapidly evolving in the 4IR. In the work environment, the human resource (HR) function is seemingly the glue that holds it all together. This is the reason why HR should be one of the foremost considerations as we grapple with these massive changes. 

Let us get to some key questions, the first being, how is the HR function changing? The function itself is firmly rooted in the people and business — and both people and business are changing! 

So how are people changing? 

Most of us have vastly different expectations from our work than our parents and grandparents. For starters, the average millennial’s work-life balance is something very different to that of the previous generation (Generation X) and the same could be said for post-millennials. A growing realisation is also that the younger generation generally places much more value on their sense of purpose at work. Thus, there is a need for the HR of companies to adapt to these changes and the needs of the new generation. 

Business is changing in response to modern demands. Organisations and companies are faced with the overwhelming need to be more dynamic, innovative, resilient and competitive to keep up with the disruptive forces of the 4IR. 


HR is therefore presented with the significant task of managing the imbalances brought about by these changes to people and the business. 

But of course, it’s a lot more complicated than that. Where to start? One of the ways in which the HR function can be renewed is by embracing the very thing rooted in cause of the disruptive forces — technology! 

HR plays an important role throughout an employee’s tenure with an organisation, which starts long before the employee joins the company or organisation. The HR function of recruitment is critical in finding, recruiting and retaining the right person for the job. Finding suitable candidates has drastically changed. Social media has become an important platform for recruitment, and technology has made actively searching for the best candidate easier, simpler and speedier than ever before. The process of on-boarding an employee is undoubtedly an important phase. Technology can also benefit this process through the use of augmented and virtual reality to introduce the new employee to her/his workplace. 

Employee performance monitoring and evaluation are perhaps some of the most contentious issues that HR is faced with on a regular basis. Data-driven methods for monitoring and evaluating performance are becoming more popular as they provide reliable, accessible and real-time insights into an employee’s performance. These methods can be taken further to provide early warnings, so that suitable guidance and/or interventions can be made as necessary. Guidance and/or intervention may be in the form of training. Nowadays, training can be made easily accessible, flexible and self-paced, and tailored for the employee through the use of technology making it more fit-for-purpose than traditional training.   

In the fourth industrial revolution, HR is faced with the monumental task of shaping the workforce of the future. This can only be done in a collaborative way that is dynamic, highly responsive to the technological changes, and sensitive to the evolving expectations of employees and employers. 

Professors Wesley Doorsamy and Babu Sena Paul are from the Institute for Intelligent Systems, University of Johannesburg

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