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Firstline workers and digital transformation

Firstline workers and digital transformation

Streamlined access to accurate and up-to-date information is the lifeblood of successful digital transformation, but people are still the backbone of any enterprise, with the opportunity to profoundly impact the success of an organisation and its interactions with customers and supply chains.

For the manufacturing sector the stakes are high. Analysts warn that over the next 20 years, Australia’s manufacturing industry must transform into a highly integrated, collaborative and export-focused ecosystem that provides high-value customised solutions contributing to global supply chains[1]. Engaging and empowering firstline manufacturing workers will be essential to the success of these initiatives.

A survey of firstline workers and managers, commissioned by Microsoft, reveals that 83% of firstline manufacturing employees recognise that technology is key to creating efficiencies in their organisation. A further 79% say technology will streamline processes and 67% that digital technology will help revolutionise manufacturing.

And not a moment too soon.

Australian manufacturing currently contributes 6% of GDP[2], exports $96.1 billion of goods and employs 856,000 people[3]. This has fallen from a high in 1995, when it contributed 14% of GDP and employed more than a million people[4]. During that time, manufacturing has become an increasingly automated, digitised sector employing increasingly skilled firstline workers. This trend must continue if Australian manufacturing is to withstand the harsh headwinds of global competition.

Manufacturing transformation

“As rote work is increasingly performed by machines, human interaction and knowledge-based expertise will become more important to firstline workers,” Microsoft Australia General Manager, Digital Workplace & Collaboration Ian Heard said. “They’ll use technology to collaborate, to exercise greater creative and strategic freedom, and to bring real value to the work they perform.”

To achieve technology’s full potential, there needs to be greater clarity on the shop floor regarding digital strategy and impact.

The online survey of 1390 working adults was commissioned by Microsoft and completed by analyst firm YouGov in September 2017. It focused on four industry sectors — health, retail, financial services and manufacturing — and reveals some clear sectoral differences.

Manufacturing firstline workers, for example, felt the least well equipped to handle groundbreaking innovation. Yet they were optimistic about technology’s ability to improve product development and innovation, quality control, skills development and opportunities for collaboration.

Less than half (47%) of firstline manufacturing workers reported feeling well informed about what their organisation was doing with digital technologies. To achieve maximum impact, organisations need to communicate these plans more effectively.

Scope for progress

There’s certainly room for improvement. About two in five firstline manufacturing workers (39%) described their enterprise’s digital progress as “developing” with plenty of scope for improvement. Only 4% said they were “pioneering” in terms of technology deployments.

The survey also revealed that three-quarters (77%) of employees across the four industries believe that digital transformation and technology is a significant issue for every organisation. However, the results also suggest that firstline workers feel they are underused in digital transformation projects. Only 21% of firstline workers are currently involved in digital transformation initiatives. A further 33% are not involved but would like to be.

More than four out of five (81%) respondents feel that strong leadership is key to a successful digital transformation program.

Enterprise knowledge workers were among the first to be impacted by digital transformation programs. They’re already benefiting from cloud computing, mobile productivity platforms and other digital technologies that increase workplace flexibility, deliver more opportunity for collaboration and provide deeper data insights that fuel further innovation.

The survey reveals that the benefits of these digital technologies are well understood and appreciated by firstline workers but, in many cases, they have yet to percolate through to empower them.

Although some firstline manufacturing workers believe that automation can lead to job losses, the survey found that 67% of all firstline workers agree the ability to work closely with automation and AI-enabled systems is key to developing a successful modern workforce. Almost seven out of 10 (69%) say automation can make processes more flexible. By engaging firstline workers from the beginning, manufacturers will be better positioned for success and strategic reform.

Heard said that organisations that engaged firstline workers in their digital transformation initiatives — ensuring they were inclusive, simple and effective, supporting firstline creativity and teamwork while preserving enterprise and employee security — would find themselves better placed to succeed with strategic priorities.

“Digital transformation is powerful but everyone needs access,” he said. “Firstline workers are the key to the next wave of successful digital transformation and sustained competitiveness.”

  1. The Conversation 2016, ‘The Australian manufacturing industry is not dying, its evolving: CSIRO study’, <https://theconversation.com/the-australian-manufacturing-industry-is-not-dying-its-evolving-csiro-study-69398>
  2. Australian Bureau of Statistics 2017, ‘5206.0 – Australian National Accounts: National Income, Expenditure and Product, Jun 2017’, <http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/mf/5206.0>
  3. Australian Bureau of Statistics 2017, ‘5368.0 – International Trade in Goods and Services, Australia, Jul 2017’, <http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/mf/5368.0>
  4. Productivity Commission 2016, ‘The changing of Australian manufacturing’, <http://www.pc.gov.au/research/supporting/changing-manufacturing/changman.pdf>