The rise of the internet was an enabling tool that had to be adopted by large masses of the population to bring forth the unbeatable value it has today – that of real-time information streaming, sharing and usage. The presence of technology is the enabler, but the actual transformation success depends on people’s ability to integrate and implement it as well as the new business concepts it produces on a mass scale within an organisation. At the moment, all efforts are top-down. However, to enable mass transformation, these top management efforts need to spread vertically—to the very bottom of the organisation—as well as horizontally – to every single function and operation.
A study on Digital Innovation Leadership on Industrial Enterprise released earlier this year showed that the priority of organisations for the next two to three years will be the development of employees’ digital skills (1). This will not be possible without thorough review and functional re-design of jobs as well as the emergence of some completely new positions within the industrial manufacturers. However, as one swallow does not make a spring, so a handful of digital talents would be too insufficient to scale up innovation if faced with mindset opposition by the majority of the employees. This mass digital upskilling, however, can be developed through consistent and continuous daily learning opportunities and real-time exchanges between functions in similar industries. It can be facilitated by easy-to-access digital platforms, blended learning formats enabling accountability and innovation adoption incentives.
Often times we hear statements from the management of various organizations that they need to transform their culture into highly engaged learning organizations. And yet few of them do really understand or have experienced what is needed to take a workforce of thousands and change their mindset and daily working habits. It requires mass employee approach, high management dedication and reasonable, yet affordable investment comparing to the one organizations pump into new technology scouting and adoption.
Until today many organisations continue to allocate budgets every year for learning and development activities that typically benefit a handful of individuals at certain levels, without having a specific strategic development focus aligned to business objectives. Most of the time, there was no actual evaluation of the results. If there was any positive change, it remains with a handful of employees, who will eventually leave and set the organisation knowledge transfer capabilities back to square one.
How do we shift the digital learning paradigm to serve organisational needs then?
A quick browse through the various recruitment channels finds a number of newly emerging job roles, and new digital functions being attached to more traditional roles, that were completely unknown ten years ago. These are transforming the way business is managed, and revamps the overall business model for traditional industries such as the general goods industry, heavy industry, mobility, life science and others.
Let’s review a few digital roles that are emerging or being transformed in the industrial context.
Technology Marketing Officer (in some cases simply Technology Brand Officer) instead of Chief Marketing Officer
Today when we talk about a marketing role in a manufacturer, we inevitably think of industrial brand positioning, not only to the channel network but eventually to the end-customer. In short, we call this B2B2C marketing; activities that require development of a digital marketing strategy directed by a Technology Marketing Officer leading a tech-savvy digital marketing team comprising of a Digital Content Developer, Data Analytics Manager, B2B2C Social Media Specialist, User Interface (UI) Expert and a Brand Manager.
The Data Analytics Manager assesses data from a variety of digital platforms, open data sources or even purchased data, and passes the results to the Digital Marketing Strategist to design ways to reach the end-customer and streamline channel network management. Industrial brands more than ever before care who their end-customer is and better positioning themselves as easy-to-access brands using B2B2C digital platforms to facilitate two-way feedback. The traditional role of the brand distributor is quickly transforming into a highly qualified brand-knowledge specialist who can provide excellent onsite support to end-customers in their territory, earning margins from the quality of after-sales services offered rather than from buying vs. selling prices.
Supply Chain Ecosystem Technology Officer replacing Chief Supply Chain Officer
Supply chain management has always played a key role for manufacturers in overall productivity, cash levels, delivery performance, profitability and return on investment (2). With the advancement of technology, the specific roles within this function have already witnessed major transformation. Let’s take as an example a traditional mid-size company with a typical linear flow of operations starting with order management, procurement (sourcing, purchasing), production planning, warehouse and logistics management to end-customer delivery. As the order cycles frequency changes and the demand for shorter lead times and faster delivery time grows, supply chain management becomes a non-stop activity that requires highly tech-savvy and business-competent talent capable of managing big data, cloud computing, augmented reality and predictive analytics. Therefore, with our mid-size enterprise example, the supply chain will move towards predictive and even prescriptive analytics on future market behaviours.
Revenue Strategy Planning Officer instead of Sales VP
In the past, the sales vice president of a manufacturer was a key role, managing the full sales process from qualifying sales leads to closing business deals. His/her activities mainly spread across sales development, managing channel networks and ensuring the right KPIs were in place to engage the sales force. With increasing demand for shorter and shorter lead times, customisation and irregular order cycles, manufacturers can no longer rely on sales forecasts based on historical data. They have to integrate a much more forward-thinking approach using real-time analytics on market demand, performance feedback, efficient channel network management and timely data collection of on-the-field product amortisation to foresee after-sales maintenance and spare parts demand. Thus, the traditional Sales VP role has started to require market performance analytics and revenue strategy planning skills, predictively shifting sales efforts from slowing down to higher performing accounts as well as developing completely new revenue streams based on analytical efforts.
Digital Talent & Organisational Development Officer instead of Chief Human Resources Officer
Today human resources activities in a foreign-invested mid-size manufacturing enterprise in China are limited mainly to simple generalist operations such as payroll management, re-active recruitment of vacancies and relatively-low skilled labor and admin related jobs. With the advancement of technology however, the usual repetitive operations can be inexpensively outsourced or internally replaced by appropriate software. What would be the future focus and added-value of the human resources officer role then, if most traditional operations become AI-processed tasks?
Simply put, the effort is shifting towards talent and organizational development to meet the overall business strategy with focus on its people. In the past 15 years, multinational companies have embraced the term ‘HR business partner’, developed by Dave Ulrich and Wayne Brockbank. This upgraded the HR function from merely HR policy and admin operations to strategy-making in support of line leaders and business decision-makers. The role, however, was rarely, if at all, adopted by small or mid-size industrial enterprises. Enabled by technology however, China-based enterprises are becoming more advanced in people management. Thus it is most likely that forward-oriented manufacturers will leapfrog from the well-known HR admin function straight to Talent and Organisational Development officers who use visualised data analytics, employ state-of-the-art people behaviour and talent analytics and develop organisational psychology approaches to engage the workforce. This employee will be well positioned to sit at the business table and advise on people strategy across all functions and levels in the organisation.
“As a beginning the existing workforce can get introduced to the transformation of traditional functions and then explore an opportunity to acquire the new skills and competencies towards a higher level of efficiency and advanced execution”
It is understandable, however, that to some above described digital roles may sound very futuristic and a bit distant from today’s reality in un industrial setting. There is a valid question of how we can ensure the practicality of developing the skillset and competencies to meet the job transformation demand? What enterprises have to do with the existing workforce that lacks the skills described above? Do they have to plan massive layoffs of outdated labor and replace it with new digital talent? Certainly not, otherwise this whole digitalization and innovation process would become worse than a nightmare and a very costly initiative, if possible at all. Not to mention the limited digital talents available outside. The most practical approach is to look and analyze the situation from within the organisations – in their own shop floors, back offices and among white collar staff. Based on the mid-term business goals they would need to outline first three priorities and implement effective and easily accessible talent upskilling platforms. As a beginning the existing workforce can get introduced to the transformation of traditional functions and then explore an opportunity to acquire the new skills and competencies towards a higher level of efficiency and advanced execution. Selecting on a suitable a well-designed platform is important to enable that first level of mass upskilling. To make it a successful effort further connection of the digital learning platforms to the performance evaluation system will have to provide equal incentives to the workforce along with other on-the-job achievements. Thus enterprises can achieve a mass effect on all levels within their organisations. The consistent top-down as well as bottom-up approach will disperse psychological uncertainty and threads away in favor of excitement from adopting new technologies and advantages they bring in day-to-day operations. Implementation in small, consistent steps on a mass scale over time can add significant value to daily operations in various functions. Once the adoption rate exceeds 10%~15% of the workforce in each function, it will continue spreading quicker leading to the long-anticipated paradigm shift. Without realizing it our organizations’ cultures will be completely transformed through digital embrace on all levels that previously looked so unattainable.