Alexandra Poole, managing director of expert industry management consultancy the iNNiTi effect, gives her thoughts on Industry 4.0 and how leaders need to embrace both artificial and emotional intelligence to unlock the full potential of their organisations on the road to Industry 4.0.
Conventional thinking about economic growth focuses on new technologies, innovations and related skills development as the key to unlocking unused potential. And as a result, the focus of solving the UK’s productivity crisis has been on leveraging these new technologies to create smarter workplaces, increasing data availability and supporting workforces with systems that enable them to make better decisions. This, we are told, is the era of the fourth Industrial Revolution (also known as Industry 4.0).
Every day, there are stories of technological breakthroughs or applications that have the potential for redefining the modern workplace. But are they actually making an impact here in the UK? Despite the promise of several revolutionary technologies in the last 20 years (think wide-scale application of robotics as one example), UK productivity is still significantly lagging behind other leading economies, so could we be forgiven for seeing Industry 4.0 as a bit of a damp squib?
The reality is for businesses to not only survive, but thrive in a competitive global marketplace, they must be agile and receptive to change – but in a way that genuinely improves their ability to deliver value to their customers. Critical to this is the accessibility of emerging technologies for businesses of all types, regardless of size or sector. SMEs account for 99% of private sector business in UK and contribute £2 trillion to the UK economy (source: FSB, 2018). Evidentially, wide-scale adoption of small changes will have greater economic impact than large-scale adoption by a few.
Access to new technology for all though will not guarantee economic growth; excluding other external factors, businesses still need their leaders to understand how to harness its potential, and importantly when it is and isn’t needed. Technology should be applied to increase the capability of the workforce, focusing on upskilling for the increase in value-added work; it shouldn’t be about implementing over-specced technology, automating wasteful processes or replacing people.
We know the value of many technological applications is the access to real-time data and analytics. Leaders of the future will need to be comfortable in analysing digital information to make informed, data-driven decisions. However, this shouldn’t be at the expense of exercising their own judgement and acting on gut instinct; if value is only placed on figures generated by a system, we miss out on other vital information along the way.
For example, emerging technologies have a huge part to play in driving innovation, but for new products or services to be purposeful in building a better future, they must have a deep understanding of human need at the centre of their design.
And data alone will not drive performance improvement. If you don’t sign up to the apocalyptic view that robots will take over the world then humans, or more importantly teams, will always exist. And despite advances, it would be fair to say that current technology lacks the ability to create the human connection needed to inspire and motivate teams; skills particularly important in creating agility in a changing business environment. There is nothing more motivating than inspiring a belief in people; when we believe in something we create purpose, engagement, and with it, productivity.
Therefore, if we are to successfully build the bridges between technology and people, leaders of the future will need to develop both emotional intelligence and skill in data-driven decision-making.
I believe we all have a responsibility as leaders to seek to understand current technological advances, how they might be applied in our organisations and to influence the roadmap of technological development to ensure we are becoming more not less human. No doubt technology brings with it plenty of opportunity, but it is only part of the solution; if Industry 4.0 really is to be a revolution, it must demonstrate the ability to drive wide-scale sustainable change for the benefit of businesses, communities and UK society.