21 Apr 2021 14:01 IST

Industry 4.0: The changing dynamics of industry-academia relationships

Industry needs to engage with academia not just as a recruiter or collaborator, but as an active partner

So far, the progression towards Industry 4.0 has been largely incremental rather than radical. But if one were to do some crystal ball gazing it appears likely that soon its implementation is going to reach an inflection point after which it is likely to gain enough critical mass to be able to permeate a lot more rapidly. A near full-blown version of Industry 4.0 is going to mean an exponential increase in the number of areas in which skills will need to be acquired.

These could include big data, actionable analytics, block chain, AI, machine learning, robotic process automation, voice recognition, augmented and virtual reality, Internet of Things and so on. In the zettabyte era we live in, there is so much happening around us that it could lead to ‘technological unemployment.’ In a recent talk, Prof Ananth Agarwal of MIT, quoted from recent research to say that 50 per cent of the current jobs will either cease to exist or be completely transformed in a few years from now.

This means that one out of two people who are currently part of the work force have to be up-skilled. It also means that we have to revisit the curriculum and content of higher educational institutions. This is going to be a herculean task. We are already riddled with problems of ensuring an acceptable quality of education for a rapidly increasing number of young aspirational students. In a scenario where agile dynamic upgrading of skills is going to be the need of the hour, how are we going to cope? Our educational institutions don’t seem to be geared up. Neither is the industry.

Emergence of ‘symbiotic phase’

Here is where one can foresee major shifts in the dynamics of industry academia relationships. We have seen industry academia relationships journey through broadly three phases. The first phase, let us call it I-A1.0, was a unidirectional supplier-procurer relationship with academic institutions being suppliers of manpower to the industry. Phase 2 or I-A2.0 saw the emergence of a more collaborative relationship. Industry outsourced specific assignments to academic institutions as consulting projects, research engagements or corporate skills enhancement. The next level of progression saw a clear emergence of I-A 3.0, which over the last decade has seen a more sustained relationship being fostered between the two entities. Synergies of research, innovation and product development have been explored more systematically. This has led to personnel from the industry and academia working together with the setting up of industry labs and research parks.

Until this phase the relationship between the industry and academia has still been characterised by the attitude of — we do our stuff and you do yours and let us get together in small pockets where it helps both of us. The time has now come for this to metamorphose into I-A 4.0, which has the vision, the bandwidth and the agility to rapidly gear up to the demands of radical changes in technological innovation and business models such as Industry 4.0.

This phase is best conceptualised as the Symbiotic Phase, in which if academic institutions and the industry do not work extensively together and shoulder-to-shoulder, both will find it difficult to survive. The industry will need to engage with academia not just as a recruiter or as a potential collaborator for research and innovation but as an active partner in the process of education itself. Corporates have to directly invest in education and not simply as a part of their CSR.

A scalable model

Much of the content relevant to Industry 4.0 will be meaningful and readily usable only if it is co-created by the industry and academia. This is happening currently but in a limited way. A single company often works with an educational institution to create customised courses relevant to the organisation. But this is not a scalable model. Organisations will need to create the mindset to be able to think beyond the boundaries of their own organisation.

To continue with some crystal ball gazing, it will be the Aggregation model that is most likely to succeed in this segment too. The sheer volume of what needs to be accomplished is going to warrant the coming together of competitors from the same industry to create domain specific aggregators of learning content. It might see the emergence of innovative programmes such as Simultaneous Sabbaticals where a few faculty members from academic institutions and domain experts from various companies are on a simultaneous sabbatical to create learning programmes. The need of the hour is a rapid proliferation of such initiatives and modularisation of content so that it becomes accessible to every learner whether she is a student or an employee of an organisation.

Secure virtual platforms for content co-creation, followed by modularised and customised learning programmes will be required as an essential backbone to facilitate this. The education paradigm has to be one that is inclusive, scalable, highly accessible, quickly deployable and highly affordable. The dexterity with which such a system can dynamically create and deliver cutting edge high quality content will determine India’s ability to respond with alacrity and agility to both market opportunities and extraneous challenges like the current pandemic.