We can all agree that even though we are well into the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the fervour surrounding its technologies is still in full swing. Not a day goes by that the Fourth Industrial Revolution isn’t featured in a news story about advanced technologies changing how we live and work. But there comes a point in every industrial revolution, like the one we are currently living through, when we realize that no matter how much technology emerges and how much potential it holds, it’s still people and their motivations that determine how well business strategies are implemented. Technology has and will continue to create efficiencies in ways humans can’t, but it will never replace the role people’s interests play.
The second industrial revolution that focused on mass production is a great example. The technological advances during that period enabled machines that could break down manufacturing processes into simple tasks, with workers along an assembly line performing a small number of individual steps. Considered a marvel in terms of business strategy and potential productivity, it soon became apparent that workers were not happy with the repetitive and punishing set-up. There was huge turnover and absenteeism. Eventually champions of mass production, like Henry Ford, had to develop strategies to improve worker morale and motivation – strategies like profit-sharing, worker housing, and education.
Similarly, in the third industrial revolution in the early 1990s, information technology and telecommunications prompted the idea of “business process reengineering” (BPR). The main thrust was to use technological advancements to radically rethink how work gets done – including how to overthrow implicit rules, tear down silos, and eradicate wasteful processes. The management expert Michael Hammer was credited with this movement, and the idea caught fire. But after a few years, BPR became synonymous with drastic downsizing. Many BPR strategies failed to achieve their promised results, as executives and workers saw the technology only as a way to trim their workforce (i.e. cost-reduction efforts as opposed to revenue growth efforts). Pushing the technology became the goal in and of itself and companies ignored the human component needed to effectively rethink processes and develop new approaches. Hammer, realizing that his ideas were being distorted, sought to remind management that any technology project is, in essence, a people project.
As we prepare to gather in Davos, companies are already using today’s exponential technologies to promote competitive advantage, with creating new markets one of the most sought-after outcomes. But applying new technologies can only give an enterprise so much competitive advantage and for so much time – barriers of entry can quickly be broken down. Here again, people, not technology, will be the key drivers that help identify new markets and give businesses a sustained competitive advantage.
It’s undeniable that today’s shiny new technological innovations and tools are already having an impact – and in this industrial revolution the technologies are shinier than ever. But the truly successful companies to come out of this current industrial revolution will be those that recognize new technologies enable people to think beyond what’s in front of them. Whether it’s the assembly line or artificial intelligence, it always comes back to people. No technology can replace the need for business leaders to listen to and utilize their workforce as they chart the success of their organization.