With all the talk about the 4th Industrial Revolution and the Age of Smart Manufacturing, driven by the Internet of Things, Big Data, advanced analytics and the Cloud, it’s easy to gloss over questions about the role people will play in manufacturing’s digital future.

After all, if machines talk to machines, learn new things and adapt on the fly, why wouldn’t it be time to dust off the old idea of what used to be called the “lights-out factory.” You know the cliché: In the future, you’ll only need a person and a dog to run a factory, the dog to make sure the person doesn’t touch anything—and the person to feed the dog!

Similar thinking today has experts rating which jobs will be made obsolete by fast-improving and new technologies—and most put many factory production jobs on the list.

This is of special interest to IndustryWeek, as through the decades we’ve been on record emphasizing how valuable people, from the executive suite to the plant floor, are to the success of a manufacturing business. However, critical to gaining value from plant floor personnel is the leadership practice of valuing them.

But I digress.

While figuring out how the latest technologies can help reduce labor costs is one way to ensure your manufacturing business’ future viability, more vital is how to find, attract and retain the talent you’ll need to transform the business—and then how to organize it. Falling behind the competition’s cost curve is one thing, but it pales in comparison to failing to leverage the technology to innovate your leadership practices, business models, work processes and products. And that takes talent.

People will play the defining role in this 4th Industrial Revolution."

Significantly, executives at companies leading the digital transformation note the importance of executive leadership. “Leadership and culture are just as important as any technology,” declares Jim Wetzel, technical director at General Mills.

Meanwhile, Lance Whitacre, VP and CIO of Andersen Corp., stresses the need for a top-to-bottom talent transformation, saying: “People have to reinvent themselves. We have to reinvent ourselves.”

Others see tension in the need for increased collaboration between the operations technology (OT) staff and the information technology (IT) staff. Recent research indicates that the two departments “don’t currently get along.”

Other research finds that “Not having the right talent on board is a problem for 65% of businesses.”

By now it’s clear that the question at the beginning of this article is rhetorical.

Regardless of the promise of a new technology, simply bolting it onto an old, creaky business model or production system isn’t going to catapult a company to success—never has, never will. People will play the defining role in this 4th Industrial Revolution.

To succeed will require re-skilling and retraining the production workforce, realigning and demanding greater collaboration among once disparate departments, and reimagining and changing nearly every aspect of how work gets done.

Indeed, change this fundamental affects one group of jobs in particular: those in the C-Suite.

Are you ready?