There is no sunset industry but only sunset thinking. Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat recently cited this comment, made by a businessman, to illustrate how the success of a company depends on its mindset. If the mindset is ruled by defensiveness and fear, the sun will set on the firm. But if managers and workers are determined to see their collective work beating the economic odds, it is likely that the company will be able to reinvent itself to survive change. Business means, as it has meant always, the taking of risk to reap dividends. The best form of risk-taking involves the attempt to create new markets that will absorb the fresh fruits of creative labour. The sun cannot set on that enterprise.
In gearing up for an uncertain future, companies need to possess at least two objectives identified by the corporate strategists Gary Hamel and C. K. Prahalad in their book, Competing For The Future. The first objective is industry foresight, or a sound point of view about the future. The second is strategic architecture, or a realistic blueprint for getting there. These might appear to be obvious goals, but the truth is that many companies are so busy seeking returns in the here and now that they fail to realise that the now will not be here for long. Hence, firms need to invest their energies, not only in doing what is essential in the short term, but also in planning for what will be possible in the long term. The short term could be shorter than many firms believe, given the shrinking of economic time produced by sudden advances in unsuspected technology. For firms, there is no way but to stay true to the trajectory of unwelcome change.
However, companies cannot prepare for that future if the workplace stays embedded in the habits of today. Thus, workers would do well to adopt a forward-looking attitude exemplifying what Mr Heng calls "learning while doing". Traditionally, learning preceded doing. Now, the challenge lies in learning while working, a lifelong calling that will test the mental mettle of workers. This is why educational platforms and businesses need to build more bridges with one another. There is much to be said for learning at work, but such education is limited by the specific nature of that work. Then there is education, but it needs to equip workers continually with the skills which they must gain today to remain employable tomorrow. Bouts of intense, modular and full-time training provided by educators should complement the hands-on experience gained at work.
Technological disruption is creating an economic landscape inimical to the prediction of sunrise industries. The world is facing yet another industrial revolution involving the creative destruction of existing industries on a possibly unprecedented scale. Lifelong education at work holds the key to survival in a Darwinian world.