By Bruno Berthon
Will digital technology be positive for workers and jobs? Amid today’s public debate about the consequences of artificial intelligence and advanced robotics, along comes the industrial Internet of things (IIoT). Little understood but potentially very significant for multiple industry sectors, this next wave of technology will create more jobs than it will destroy, according to the majority of business leaders Accenture has surveyed.
The industrial Internet of things is a fast-growing network of intelligent connected devices, machines and objects. It will certainly automate and drive efficiencies, but the optimism of employers reflects their recognition that, more importantly, it will enable the creation of entirely new products and services and markets. Indeed, Accenture Strategy estimates the IIoT could boost the gross domestic product (GDP) of 20 of the world’s largest economies by an additional US$14 trillion by 2030.
Where some technology advances have simply improved the quality and price competitiveness of products—mainly through automation—the IIoT breaks new ground in helping use vast volumes of data from those products and other physical objects to offer tailored outcomes to customers.
Take the example of the agrochemical sector. By integrating climatic, geological and other data, companies can go beyond selling products to earning revenues from guaranteed yields for specific crops in certain locations. Similarly, engine manufacturers could be rewarded for delivering reduced air travel delays by pre-empting maintenance issues through the real-time monitoring of engine performance in flight.
In short, the outcome economy has arrived, where partnerships between companies and their respective workers inspire more bespoke and varied solutions for customers. Small wonder, then, that 86 percent of the 1,400 business leaders we polled think the industrial Internet of things will be a net creator of jobs.
There is already evidence that workforce transformation is happening. A Maryland steel company used automation and robotics coupled with analytics, which led to more knowledge-intensive work. The result? A safer, more engaging work experience alongside higher productivity and quality. By making digital investments, the steel company was able to significantly increase hourly pay and experienced growing demand that led to an increase in hires.
It is not just about new jobs but the content of those new roles. Many businesses will demand new skills and reward workers with more interesting work. Accenture and Royal Philips’ proof-of-concept demonstration uses a Google Glass head-mounted display to research ways to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of performing surgical procedures.
Theoretically, hands-free access to critical clinical information could also be applied in the utilities or communications industries, helping field engineers repair complex equipment in more difficult stations than they can today. These digital enhancements augment skills as employees blend their skills with those of digital labor.
The IIoT can also empower workers. By sharing data about how customers are interacting with products, employees can use 3D printing and other technologies to experiment in virtual teams, produce prototypes more quickly and tweak product design. Innovation is not only more spontaneous and synchronized; it is autonomous, liberating employees from traditional research and development structures.
At the core of this change is the way workers will be freed from volume activity to address individual exceptions revealed by data. In this way, they can resolve challenges faced by particular customers and design more tailored solutions for them. This shift in focus from delivering mass products to delivering outcomes for customers places greater emphasis on talent.
The benefits are not guaranteed, however. Seventy two percent of the CEOs and business leaders Accenture surveyed say their company has yet to make concrete plans for the industrial Internet of things. Only seven percent have developed a comprehensive IIoT strategy with investments to match. What do leaders need to do to ensure digital technology brings advantages to workers?
Leaders will have to take risks by collapsing hierarchies and permitting new levels of autonomy so that workers can use data and intelligent connected devices to collaborate more with counterparts in other companies. Some companies will need to get ahead of organizational change that will otherwise be forced on them, as digital technology reverses recent trends by centralizing manufacturing while decentralizing services’ delivery.
The IIoT depends on significant investments in developing ad hoc skills and breeding new talent. New jobs, from digital robot design and healthcare analytics to transport network engineering and software development, can only be created if businesses and governments and the education sector work together to redesign education curricula.
Talent and skills are the most important determinant of whether countries and companies use this new digital era to secure growth and boost their competitiveness. And workers and employability could also be the greatest beneficiaries. That tantalizing prospect depends on business and governments doing more to recognize the generational transformation in the workforce that could result from embracing the industrial Internet of things.