Prof. Sattar Bawany, CEO and C-suite master executive coach, Centre for Executive Education (CEE), emphasises the importance of cognitive readiness skills for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Digitisation has an impact on all organisations including small and medium entreprises (SMEs) across various sectors or industries. In each case, the impact is a different one which makes it essential for companies to have a good understanding and view of what they face and how digitisation will affect their company: which opportunities can be seized and which threats have to be faced?

The impact of digital disruption has to be managed alongside the more general volatile, unpredictable, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) operating conditions of recent years.

Leaders are facing the almost overwhelming task of restoring confidence and respect in leadership and business. They are being called upon to guide organisations through times of turbulence and uncertainty, to show the way forward and to set an example. And all this in the face of an increasingly disruptive global economy and in a climate of cynicism and mistrust - tough economic and political circumstances by any standards.

We believe that leadership in the digital world is all about the ability to impact and influence your followers and stakeholders towards achieving the mission and objectives of the organisation by demonstrating effectively the suite of next-generation leadership competencies such as cognitive readiness skills, critical thinking and emotional and social intelligence competencies including empathy and relationship management.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution (Industry 4.0)

Professor Klaus Schwab, the founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum (WEF), published a book entitled The Fourth Industrial Revolution in which he describes how this fourth revolution is fundamentally different from the previous three, which were characterised mainly by advances in technology.

Schwab defines the first three industrial revolutions as the transport and mechanical production revolution of the late 18th century; the mass production revolution of the late 19th century, and the computer revolution of the 1960s.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution or Industry 4.0 as it is commonly known, represents the combination of cyber-physical systems, the Internet of Things, and the Internet of Systems. In short, it is the idea of smart factories in which machines are augmented with web connectivity and connected to a system that can visualise the entire production chain and make decisions on its own.

In this fourth revolution, a range of new technologies will evolve that combine the physical, digital and biological worlds. These new technologies will impact all disciplines, economies, and industries, and even challenge our ideas about what it means to be human.

Technological innovation is on the brink of fuelling momentous change throughout the global economy, generating great benefits and challenges, in equal measure. To thrive in this environment, Schwab argues, public-private research collaborations should increase, and should be structured towards building knowledge and human capital to the benefit of all.

Leading amid the disruption

There will be enormous managerial leadership challenges as the impact of technology and the disruption that comes will result in an exogenous force over which leaders would have little or no control at times.

However, it is the role of leaders to guide their teams and to be mindful of these forces when making business decisions that would impact on the sustainability of their organisations. They should thus grasp the opportunity and power so as to shape the Fourth Industrial Revolution and direct it toward a future that reflects the organisation values and success.

To do this, however, leaders must develop a comprehensive and globally shared view of how technology is affecting the lives of their employees and at a macro level how it is reshaping the economic, social, cultural, and human environments.

There has never been a time of greater promise, or one of greater potential peril. Today’s leaders and decision-makers, however, are too often trapped in traditional, linear thinking, or too absorbed by the multiple crises demanding their attention, to think strategically about the forces of disruption and innovation shaping their organisation’s future.

Importance of cognitive readiness

Through our consulting and executive coaching engagements over recent years, we have found that those leaders who thrive are able to develop and demonstrate effectively the suite of cognitive readiness competencies.

Cognitive readiness can be viewed as part of the advanced thinking skills that make leaders ready to confront whatever new and complex problems they might face. As stated earlier, cognitive readiness is the mental preparation that leaders develop so that they, and their teams, are prepared to face the ongoing dynamic, ill-defined, and unpredictable challenges in the digital, highly disruptive and VUCA-driven business environment which are the hallmarks of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

The Executive Development Associates (EDA) has identified the following 7 key cognitive readiness skills collectively known as Paragon7, which develop, enhance or sustain a leader’s ability to navigate successfully in this 'new normal'.

The brief overview of each of these 7 cognitive readiness competencies are:

  1. Mental cognition: Recognise and regulate your thoughts and emotions
  2. Attentional control: Manage and focus your attention
  3. Sensemaking: Connect the dots and see the bigger picture
  4. Intuition: Check your gut, but don’t let it rule your mind
  5. Problem solving: Use analytical and creative methods to resolve a challenge
  6. Adaptability: Be willing and able to change, with shifting conditions
  7. Communication: Inspire others to action; create fluid communication pathways
Overall, heightened cognitive readiness allows leaders to maintain a better sense of self-control in stressful situations.

Effective leadership at all levels

As digital impacts the entire organisation it requires effective leadership at all levels to drive the digital strategy going forward.

As digital transformation expands across the organisation and the 'war for talent' continues, organisations need to consider a more structured approach to building a healthy leadership pipeline with the necessary capabilities to lead in the digital era.

They can do this by placing potential leaders in positions that stretch them beyond their current competencies and skills, to coach them and support them on building new digital capabilities as rapidly as possible.

Though some traditional leadership capabilities still remain critical to successfully lead in the digital era (e.g. creating and communicating a clear vision, motivating and empowering others, etc.), there are also new requirements for leaders at all levels of the organisation. These demand a dynamic combination of a new mindset and behaviors, digital knowledge and skills that are critical to lead teams in the digital era.

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