While the entire world is managing the uncertainty of COVID-19 and dealing with the impact, manufacturers are feeling the pressure more than most. Many companies are still running and are full capacity; however, changes occur daily and most companies aren't even sure whether they will be open a week from now. There are many policies that manufacturers have put in place to try and manage this global pandemic, namely limiting meeting sizes, banning travel, and social distancing. Manufacturers are also turning to telecommuting for those employees able to do so, an act that many in the industry had not fully embraced in the past.
The reality, though, is that manufacturing plants need to stay functional, whether for chemicals, industrial machinery, food and beverage, or life sciences—and that means people need to be on the plant floor. In order to be most effective, however, manufacturing employees, whether on the plant floor or working from home, need to stay connected. The ability to collaborate is an essential skill and one of the most highly sought after for new manufacturing employees. In fact, in IDC's April 2019 Talent Management Survey, the ability to collaborate within/across groups was the number one-skill manufacturers are looking for to support digital transformation (DX).
The good news is that technology can help make collaboration easier and enable remote employees to become more effective.
Providing collaboration tools and shifting to a digital way of communicating, working, and learning that is typical for executive management, needs to also be available to the rest of the organization. All functional areas need to be looked at when it comes to collaboration — product development, supply chain and warehousing, manufacturing operations, sales and marketing, and field service. Manufacturers also need to look toward their customers and ensure constant collaboration and communication.
Source: Talent Management Survey 2019, IDC, April, 2019
Involving more departments and stakeholders in making decisions requires changes in how companies collaborate. Where email communication may have worked in the past, waiting for feedback from a number of participants can hamper the decision-making process. Tools that allow the simultaneous interaction of a number of individuals and locations in virtual meeting environments or real-time virtual collaboration can solve this bottleneck.
With a virtual approach, manufacturers can be better equipped to communicate and collaborate no matter an employee's location. Say a situation arises that requires product design rework; designers and stakeholders are able to connect and interact live (whether through instant message or video applications) without communication delays or travel expenses. Through the cultivation of such a collaborative environment in their enterprise, manufacturers can improve new product introduction rates. This applies for production or supply chain issues as well. Virtual solutions allow stakeholders to provide feedback and make changes together immediately,
One area that is expected to see some of the largest growth among manufacturers is utilizing some form of instant messaging (IM) as a communication tool. IM tools can be used as a replacement for telephone and radio communications. Not only is it almost as real time as voice but is also logged for future learning and easier continuous improvement analysis. Also, by providing their workers with mobile devices that support these IM applications, workers are always connected to one another.
The use of collaboration technology has traditionally been from a fixed-room perspective. PC and other desktop-based solutions still dominate the landscape today, however, new technology provides new opportunities to collaborate, and manufacturers are beginning to understand this by implementing a wide variety of form factors. A key finding is the increasing reliance on mobile applications such as smartphones and tablet-based and ruggedized tools. Smartphones and tablets are powerful ancillary tools, when used in conjunction with desktops. They allow workers to have access to any information needed right at their fingertips, no matter where they are at an operating site. Providing your workforce a single view, no matter the device, is the approach to take if you want to be successful.
One thing to keep in mind when it comes to the adoption of new tools is to not overlook infrastructure and connectivity needs. Organizations need to ensure that devices are able to connect with each other in a seamless fashion. When these applications are unable to exchange data seamlessly, it greatly reduces the value of a collaboration solution. In addition, effective leaders collaborate with the right person when and where needed. Connectivity is critical; successful manufacturers need to collaborate through the design-to-deliver phase (i.e., innovation and design, planning operational requirements, collaborating with supply chain partners, and providing service in the field) in a secure and effective fashion. These investments provide additional ROI, since the network is a shared resource that drives not only collaboration but also information/data collection and control functions.
While COVID-19 has put an immense amount of pressure on manufacturers to address immediate concerns, there are also long-term benefits to keep in mind. Manufacturers looking to improve their collaboration initiatives beyond the adoption of the tools highlighted previously should consider the following recommendations:
Organization and process capabilities:
- Implement a virtual center of excellence to allow the leveraging of resources and assets regardless of location
- Standardize and enforce a remote worker policy across your organization
- Provide access to real-time (or recorded) collaborative interactions.
- Align collaboration/communications tools to overall IT strategy.
- Establish cross-functional teams to support collaboration initiatives/define communications usage policies.
Knowledge and performance management capabilities:
- Provide real-time visibility into operation data, manufacturing processes, utilization, and optimization levels.
- Track utilization of collaboration tools by creating usage reports for line-of-business managers and executives.
- Build a centralized repository for collaboration best practices.
- Provide the ability to define and search subject matter expertise by employee.
- Define and measure ROI metrics for collaboration tool usage (travel cost/time, customer satisfaction, response time to incidents, etc.).
As the enterprise progresses toward the goal of providing more collaborative capabilities to remote individuals, it is important to realize the value of these tools as not only a technological achievement but as part of practical business enhancement. Improved collaboration allows data and ideas to be exchanged more quickly which, in turn, can help improve development, production processes, and the handling of customer service issues, among other things. If you have not yet, consider investing in collaboration tools that allow your global teams to work together in real time. Consider videoconferences as an option to connect disparate teams. More importantly, get your employees (from the line of business to executives) to utilize these applications to its fullest potential; otherwise, these investments will just become a cost center. In addition, implementing the aforementioned key capabilities today, will empower employees to more effectively collaborate, no matter their location.
Reid Paquin is research director for IDC Manufacturing Insights, responsible for the IT Priorities & Strategies (ITP&S) practice. Mr. Paquin’s core research coverage includes IT investments made across the manufacturing industry and manufacturers' progress with digital transformation.