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Digitalization, industry 4.0, and the future of work

As Jeanne Ross from MIT Sloan rightly opined “The thing that’s transforming is not the technology – the technology is transforming You.”

Digitalization

Sentinel Digital Desk

Dr B K Mukhopadhyay

(The author is a Professor of Management and Economics, formerly at IIBM (RBI) Guwahati. He can be contacted at m.bibhas@gmail.com)

Dr. Boidurjo Rick Mukhopadhyay

(The author, international award-winning development and management economist, formerly a Gold Medalist in Economics at Gauhati University)

As Jeanne Ross from MIT Sloan rightly opined "The thing that's transforming is not the technology – the technology is transforming You." While there are positive impacts of the same, it equally does trigger risks, e.g., if your company's firewalls or intrusion detection systems fail (like it did with Twitter or Zoom, multiple times, last year), one would still hold the people accountable and certainly not the systems. In the process, however, we are understanding the systems and how it's evolving, more intimately. Digital transformation at the workplace is a business philosophy and a matter of discipline, not a project or a trend. Digitalization of the workplace is something that would be embedded at the core of the company's values, pretty similar to when selected companies decide to practice 'green and carbon-free, 'sustainability', or refuse to run animal testing while developing their products, e.g., beauty and pharmaceutical companies.

"Any kind of job is going to have a digital component. It doesn't mean everyone's got to be a computer scientist; digital technology can bring skills to a much more under-skilled population because of their ease of use and the ease of access to technology." Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, rightly opined once. The standard 9-to-5 workday model will soon belong to history. The 4th industrial revolution or simply put, Industry 4.0 is where we are in the timeline of history – filled with automated machines, artificial intelligence (AI) and people being linked together through the Internet of Things (IoT) and cloud computing, create 'cyber-physical systems.

The digital workplace can best be considered the natural evolution of the workplace. Estimates projection showed 50 billion devices were connected to the internet by end of the year 2020. With the expansion of connectivity, organizations can also use external competencies and knowledge, and not solely depend on that of their workers. The workforce in many organizations, particularly in larger ones, is diversified. While the categorization of Baby Boomers, Millennials and Gen Z helps a lot of studies to analyse behavioural changes at a more specific level, the fact is that the younger generations, such as Gen Z, are more likely to quickly adapt to a digitally transformed workplace is particularly true. While Millennial employees are typically tech-savvy, eager to learn new technology, willing to adapt and take associated risks, they detest being micro-managed or not being allowed the freedom to choose where they want to work from. The pandemic transformed that possibility.

It is however important to distinguish between digitization and digitalization, to begin with. Digitization is the relatively simple transformation of analogue information into numerical information. e.g., when you scan a paper document, for example, you digitize it.

Digitalization, on the contrary, is what you might do to a factory or a building or a city. Digitalization puts together insights from Big Data with interconnected, location-based services and individual preferences to precisely deliver relevant information in a user-friendly format, e.g., your daily screen time, you've been driving for several hours, it's your usual dinnertime, and you generally like Korean food. Your GPS navigation device knows all of this, and – unprompted – gives you directions to a good Bibimbap restaurant.

Some examples would further clarify the state of Industry 4.0. Business applications can now give virtually any office worker the ability to instantly access and use whatever information they need, wherever they are, at whatever time of day. They also allow virtual teams to successfully collaborate on documents or projects from venues scattered across the globe.

For healthcare, e.g., doctors using Virtual Reality (VR) or Augmented Reality (AR) tools can more thoroughly examine a patient, assured that they haven't overlooked something in their diagnosis. And in a hospital, IoT (the Internet of Things)-connected machines work together to provide ceaseless monitoring of a patient's vital signs. Nurses are alerted instantly whenever an incident occurs.

In manufacturing, AR glasses are also being used in factories to train workers and reduce mistakes. Workers access step-by-step assembly instructions as they work, and the glasses tell them if and when a mistake has been made. Digitalization also makes manufacturing jobs safer.

Technology is enabling us to do more and different types of jobs – we're busier than ever. While the digital world has a multitude of options to offer to digitize workplaces, every organization must choose the right mix of tools that suits the organization's needs. The right tools will accelerate the outcome and will streamline all the necessary processes. Time lost in communication is a huge opportunity cost for the organization. The digital workplace enables employees to collaborate, communicate, and connect without any middlemen or loss of time.

For businesses, digitization of the workplace will call for different business drivers and the need to redefine the direction of business activities. Though digitization speeds up the processes, it is crucial to set a clear path for achieving business objectives to maintain a steady growth trajectory.

The control aspect, however, needs careful handling. The most important benefit of the digital workplace is dissolving boundaries and creating open offices were communication barriers cease to exist. However, this calls for appropriate controls and management processes. Developing a governance model that maximizes connectivity and collaboration while mitigating risks is crucial. Beyond setting a strategy and building your digital workplace toolbox, you need to resolve any challenges your organization may face in the areas of governance, risk and compliance. When creating a digital workplace, organizations must also develop a governance model that supports connectivity and collaboration while mitigating risks and enabling compliance.

For organizations considering to digitalize the workplace, the following would be recommended:

Firstly, the importance of ensuring Strategic alignment – A company's digital strategy must always align with its organization's values and mission. The aim of digitization is not simply to create a modern workplace but also to strengthen the organization's mission statement.

Secondly, understand the culture mix - An organization's culture and demographics are the most critical parameters to be considered while implementing digital strategies. Analyse how technology-friendly your workforce is and if they are willing to adapt to new changes in the organization.

Thirdly, make time and invest in training employees to make it easy and accessible - When there's a fundamental change in the way the organisation functions, employees are front burners who take the heat. Ensure that your employees have adequate resources to adapt to the new digital revolution at the workplace.

We are getting closer to an almost paper-free office (most large banks in the UK, e.g., Barclays and Lloyds have already) thanks to the digitization of the workplace. Apps and smart wear technologies create the latest waves of tools to make sharing information quick and easy. The technologies are encouraging greater employee collaboration, information exchange, allowing employees to provide guidance or seek help on a real-time basis from their peers or superiors and also engage with customers effectively.

The key to success, however, lies in the effective implementation of a digital workplace strategy capable of driving true cultural change. By integrating the technologies that employees use (from e-mail and enterprise social media tools to HR applications and virtual meeting tools), the digital workplace breaks down communication barriers, positioning you to transform the employee experience by fostering efficiency, innovation and growth.

The emerging digital workplace can address these concerns by helping organizations: A) Support changes in working styles that enable employees to work more transparently and better leverage social networks; B) Unify offline and online communications by keeping employees connected through their mobile devices to provide anywhere, anytime access to tools and corporate information; C) Support virtual work environments that allow employees to stay connected in distributed and virtualized work locations while balancing customer privacy and operational risk; D) Win the war on talent by offering the progressive and innovative environments that top candidates now expect.

Finally, companies need to recognise the components of digital workplace governance. Firstly, identify the business goals you are trying to achieve with the digital workplace and translate them into guiding principles to drive ongoing development.

Secondly, determine the focus of your digital workplace strategy and align it with your organization's existing information management or information governance strategy.

Thirdly, identify your key stakeholders and create a suitable and sustainable interaction model.

Fourthly, ensure your employees have access to training that allows them to harness the digital workplace to their advantage.

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