As the level of digitalization in consumer products continues to grow, technology’s role in business is also on the rise. The digital workplace, as it’s been referred to, has businesses rethinking entire business models in order to optimize work efficiency and stay relevant in the market.
Our current society is highly individualized and highly connected. This is one of the reasons why new generations see personal success and professional success as being interconnected. People success is the way this new digital society manages to embed these individuals into a business fabric that makes personal and professional sense. One way to achieve this is by leveraging the latest technologies such as artificial intelligence, internet of things or machine learning to empower these individuals and drive performance.
Bringing humans and machines together
While many of these technologies seem to hold the promise of tremendous productivity and hugely improved business processes, the first thing to consider before embarking on a digitalization journey is having everyone on the same page.
Tech natives are a large part of the workforce today, and they’re soon going to be the norm for almost all industries. But the only way a digital workplace can yield positive results is if it’s embraced by the human workers who comprise it. Employee’s needs, strengths, skills and fears can determine the success or failure of a technology inside the workplace.
A business ecosystem has to be based on the human way of doing things before it can be enhanced through the use of technology. Digital businesses should not be seen as humans plus machines, but more like cyborgs, a single entity working delivering higher performance. Every change in way of working has to be understood and supported by everyone, before it can be translated into a technology solution. A great example of rushing into the adoption of new technology that had the potential to optimize business processes is that of Whole Foods. Before being acquired by Amazon, they automated their inventory and ordering system in what seemed like a great decision efficiency-wise. Unfortunately, the initiative failed to take staff, vendors and customers into account, resulting in a failure of the entire project.
The way we work is indeed changing but it’s not an overnight change. It takes time and it’s proving to be much more difficult in practice than technology enthusiasts might have hoped. In our experience, the crucial challenge is not implementing new technology. It is understanding the human and organizational challenges and being able to formulate a suitable digital strategy that can enhance and not hinder them. Once companies understand that, they will be able to reap the fruit of these highly discussed technologies.
Technologies for the digital workplace
Virtual and augmented reality
If you’ve seen Minority Report, you’ve already caught a glimpse of how we could be using virtual reality and augmented reality to enhance our work. By strapping on an augmented reality headset or using an AR-outfitted phone, employees can be faster, more precise and better prepared in less time. Virtual and augmented reality have the potential to expands on human potential, allowing people and machines to function better together than either could alone.
Although consumer applications are still limited mainly because of weak VR content, lack of VR familiarity, and over-pricing, both virtual and augmented reality will continue to mature and find its way into the workplace environment. For example, NASA is one of the latest organizations to embrace virtual and augmented reality. Thomas Grubb, an engineer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, is leading a team to develop six multidisciplinary pilot projects highlighting the potential of VR and AR applications. This includes a collaborative virtual-reality environment where users wear headgear and hand controls to design, assemble and interact with spacecraft using predefined, off-the-shelf parts and virtual tools like wrenches and screwdrivers.
This type of technology is primed for disrupting talent management and productivity. We can envision the potential of virtual reality in enterprise training and learning, where employees can use it for anything ranging from off-site assignments to corporate training.
Furthermore, in industries looking to enhance tasks on the job, this will become the new normal, as digital information will be superimposed on the physical reality. Onboarding and training in industrial environments can be transformed by adding virtual instructions on top of machinery and tools, as employees engage with the environment, like we’ve seen in the NASA example.
Considering that the global market for virtual reality technologies totaled $3.7 billion in 2017 and is expected to reach $39.4 billion by 2022, we can expect to start seeing these changes sooner than we thought.
Advanced Machine Learning
Machine learning applications in talent management can enable companies to expand their growth and optimize processes while improving employee engagement and increasing customer satisfaction. This technology is controversial as it can either enhance an individual's capacity within his professional environment, or replace him completely. At its core, it is rebuilding the basis for our business decision making.
Using algorithms, machine learning programs iteratively learn from large sources of data-building patterns and identify insights without being explicitly instructed and programmed to look for answers, only to learn to identify data sets. It basically allows for machines to not only collect information from corporate environments, but also learn from it. For example, machine learning algorithms can be used to enable contextual analysis of logistics data to predict and mitigate supply chain risks.
This technology can improve the efficiency of the initial analysis that humans can do, allowing people to look at higher level results and focus on more complex analysis as a result. To date, machine learning applications in the business and talent management area are mainly focused on predictive analysis and talent relationship, most frequently in the recruitment process.
One instance of such an application is Unilever’s experiment with algorithm-based evaluations, video techniques as well as automatic data gathering for the hiring process. Based on machine learning, the experiment is intended to help free up a significant portion of their recruitment team capacity and re-deploy them to advisory tasks, leaving only the final interviews to human recruiters. In a similar example, SAP is using machine learning technologies in their SuccessFactors solutions to identify the uncAonscious bias in developing job postings or in calibrating team performance, or chat-bots to automate service request processes and evolving traditional system user interfaces to use written and even spoken natural language.
The Internet of Things (IoT)
The impact of IoT in people success is probably more simple than we would like to think: the technology decentralizes information transfer allowing individuals to interact easier and faster with a larger array of devices within their “office environment”. Its most obvious advantage is improved accessibility.
By 2020, we’re expecting to see as many as 25 billion internet-connected things. This Internet of Things trend is also making an impact in business environments, as employees are using more and more devices to collaborate and to deliver work output.
These so-called smart objects are equipped with sensors, processors and software, enabling them to collect data and operate autonomously. When combined with artificial intelligence and cloud computing, they can automate entire business processes. A great illustration of how this works is enterprise wayfinding technology that leverages location aware technologies such as beacons, and connects them to employee’s mobile phones and conference room’s audio-video systems to streamline meetings and enhance collaboration.
DHL has been experimenting with IoT for a while and has recently launched a series of IoT pilots across various sites around the world. The most recent pilot is an automotive plant in China in partnership with Huawei. The IoT pilot will use Narrowband IoT, a low power wide area (LPWA) technology that is designed to allow IoT devices to transmit data to and from one another. DHL has also previously partnered with Cisco and IoT startup Conduce to introduce IoT cockpits into warehouses in Germany, Netherlands and Poland.
Wearables provide a higher degree of personal awareness at the office, while allowing the user to connect to the IOT network. This technology impacts both employees’ personal wellbeing as well as their productivity.
We’ve seen theimpact of wearables in the financial industry as consumer applications, but their potential can also be extended to enterprise applications. In fact, the enterprise wearables market is expected to reach 18Bn by 2019, visibly impacting the way we manage talent and business processes.
While tracking workplace wellness through wearables is most likely the simplest and most straightforward use, applications can vary. Stress management and monitoring can become the norm, especially in environments where it impacts retention. Besides health, wearable devices are also enhancing other areas of productivity and employee management.
One such example is Amazon who recently obtained two patents for tracking wristbands that are designed to provide “haptic feedback” based on workers’ movements. The smart bands are intended to maximize a employees’ time and effort, as well as to keep inventories in flawless order. Another example is that of SmartCap Technologies in Australia, which produces a “fatigue monitoring solution” to detect “microsleeps” in truck drivers and other operators of heavy machinery. The technology “monitors brain waves to make sure you aren’t falling asleep at the wheel and that your mental acuity is good enough that you’ll stay awake”.
Enhancing employee engagement with technology
Empowered employees who are provided with the right tools for better decision making, higher accessibility, better collaboration opportunities and who are satisfied with how their work life blends with their personal life are engaged employees. These high performing employees are invested in the company they work for. They are engaged in a sense that they are invested in delivering great work and contributing to the company’s growth. In a collaborative, agile business ecosystem, employees can leverage these new technologies to do better work, in less time. They are empowered to communicate better, to innovate and to work together with these technologies to improve the company’s competitiveness.
At the other end of the spectrum, you have disengaged employees who are struggling with defective ways of communication, old system architectures and obsolete technologies that hinder their productivity and lower their morale. What this translates to is high turnover rates, toxic work cultures and companies who are struggling to stay relevant in the digital economy.
The reality is in the middle, for most companies. The starting point for a strategic process of digitization should always start with an assessment and talent needs, business processes and finding the right technologies to create an effective business ecosystem that is based on people success.