Until the coronavirus slammed the world’s economy, shutting down schools, offices, factories, and public events, disrupting life in highly visible ways, a major but much quieter transformation had been going on inside the industrial sector. Before the pandemic hit, the pace of that change had been accelerating, transforming manufacturing into what observers began calling the ‘fourth industrial revolution.’ It was defined by advances in smart technology, which were reshaping the contours of the workplace, the tasks that needed to be done, and the personnel training required to do them. Companies throughout the developed world had become keenly aware of that change, and many were scrambling to keep up with it. Then the virus hit.
It quickly became clear that no one was well prepared to deal with the massive dislocation created by COVID-19’s spread. Markets, transport systems, supply chains, and finances all imploded. And the repercussions stemming from that rapid chain of events are still unfolding. But the advances in technology that underpinned the new industrial revolution are not reversible. Automation, IoT, remote sensors, augmented reality, virtual reality, drones, cloud platforms, and data-driven management tools are destined to become permanent parts of the industrial landscape well after recovery from the pandemic takes place. So assessing their significance today is still timely.
Two years ago, a study by the prestigious World Economic Forum examined the workplace changes then taking place and identified dozens of new or substantially changed categories of work that the emerging economy would demand of employees in the foreseeable future. Among them: software and application developers, data analysts, managing directors, chief executives, general and operations managers, sales and marketing professionals, as well as all sorts of specialized technicians, focused on new technologies.
Of course, there are important differences between each of those jobs and what they’re responsible for, as well as in the formal preparation and work experience required of the individuals assigned to carry them out. But there is also something just about all of them have in common: it’s that every one of them is dependent on digital technology and on highly sophisticated software packages from outside vendors that track and enable essentially every business function. Examples would include ERP, CRM, CSM, BI, HR, financial applications, and many others.
Indeed, if you were to peek at the workstations of people doing very different corporate jobs, you’d find that they look very much alike. All of them are outfitted with screens showing whichever programs relate to the functions that the employee is responsible for. Information-rich displays cascade across those screens, demanding the employee’s attention throughout most of the workday. And they are dynamic – constantly changing with real-time input and frequently reconfigured by the organization as well as by the software company’s developers to better capture critical data, analyze what it means, enable smarter decisions, and line up the resources to carry them out.
In 2018, the global spend on enterprise software rose by 9.5 percent from just one year earlier to approximately $390 billion. The following year it rose another 8.5 percent to $431 billion. This year, IT spending on enterprise software had been expected to amount to over $500 billion worldwide. Other forecasts suggested that this trend of rapid expansion would continue in the coming years. But that was before the coronavirus. Now, even though all bets are off regarding the pace of that investment growth, it is more a question of when rather than whether it will resume.
Several generations ago, most industrial labor became mechanized. Today, it’s become digitized. The backbreaking exertions of industry’s past have been almost entirely replaced by technologies that never tire, never complain, and in many cases, never even require human intervention. The promise of that transformation for progress, prosperity, and personal fulfillment is tremendous. But it will come at a cost. As the World Economic Forum report put it:
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The inherent opportunities are enormous… [but they] depend crucially on the ability of all concerned stakeholders to instigate reform in education and training systems, labor market policies, business approaches to developing skills, employment arrangements and existing social contracts. Catalyzing positive outcomes and a future of good work for all will require bold leadership and an entrepreneurial spirit from businesses and governments, as well as an agile mindset of lifelong learning from employees.
It is a tall order, and it involves a lot of moving parts. But one critical element of preparing for the change is already in hand: tools to promote skill in the use of enterprise software. That’s because even for a generation native to digital devices, enterprise software is not intuitive. Instruction provided by the software’s developer and by the client company’s own IT department is valuable. However, it tends to be concentrated at the front end of adoption. Once that initial training is over, employees are largely on their own.
But for most enterprise software packages, which are highly complex and built on millions of lines of code, an employee’s ability to recall everything needed to make good use of their program is almost always inadequate. Particularly with frequent updates to the software, the user’s initial training soon becomes obsolete. It is a need that has become the focus of a new industry, which Gartner recently characterized as Digital Adoption Solutions, or DAS. Its mission is to provide software that helps users cut through the complexity and constant customization of their employer’s enterprise systems. It does that by automatically integrating real-time, context-sensitive, on-screen prompts into the application – helping users learn to navigate their system more quickly and with greater confidence, and it remains with the user throughout the life of the software.
My company – which is in the DAS business – recently commissioned a study to learn more about how companies are, or are not, succeeding with digital adoption. What we found is that while most enterprises, including those in our sample, had already deployed CRM systems, fewer than half of their sales reps actually used it. As a result, at least in the view of those companies, 70 percent of the implementations now in place failed to achieve their anticipated outcome. That’s a huge disappointment. Yet our survey confirmed the widely held belief in those same organizations that enabling sales reps to adopt their CRMs through the use of DAS technology could substantially increase their sales productivity and generate real cash savings for the company.
DAS solutions are not designed to replace formal training in the use of the application; vendor and internal IT training will remain valuable. Instead, DAS is a supplementary companion, deployed to constantly run on top of cloud-based enterprise solutions without degrading the underlying software’s performance. It is a tool for quickly building proficiency, overcoming non-adoption excuses, and getting more value from the company’s investment. It’s a tool that many companies have found works well for them. And once repairs from the current pandemic’s damage have gotten underway, it will remain a high-value companion to any company resuming its journey through digital transformation.