About a decade ago we stood on the brink of a technological revolution that was to fundamentally alter the way we live, work & communicate. With the benefit of hindsight, we can clearly see how the change has manifested and impacted all our lives. An electricity-conducting-material-coated-glass surface (read touchscreen) manages our lives and livelihoods with aplomb. The lines between the physical, digital, and biological have been substantially blurred by a fusion of technologies that are enabling the 4th Industrial Revolution. Unlike previous Industrial Revolutions, the 4th one has scale and speed & scope that have not been seen or experienced earlier. Having said that, the basic element that’s enabling this transformation is not unknown to us, it is Data.
Data is fueling the 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR). The ability to generate, store, process and consume data has grown exponentially. Proliferation of smart sensors, digital apps, high speed & inexpensive connectivity, near-unconstrained computing capacity & human ingenuity are propelling humankind towards an era that will be integrated across time & space, an era that will eliminate information & knowledge asymmetry and an era underpinned by sustainable living. For industries, it has held the promise of unparalleled efficiency & productivity gains across the value chain, at a fraction of the investment. To be sure that these are not components of a sci-fi thriller, all we need is to look around. With the onset of Covid, the rate of this transformation has only accelerated, and every aspect of our daily lives today is enabled by digital technologies – communication, travel, shopping, working, learning, to list a few. Organisations cutting across industries & purposes are riding this wave of change with varied degrees of success. The ones who were the early adopters have been able to tide over the pandemic induced economic environment with far better results than the rest, who are now scampering to catch up.
For those who are starting off now on this journey, the need of the hour is clear, and the proof of concept and value are there to be seen across industries. Others like us, who began early, had to go through a long process of creating a belief system and altering mindset towards the new technologies, and needed to test and demonstrate for themselves the proof of concept and value. Having done that, the first step was to assess and access the right mix of technologies that would be value accretive to the business. The no-regret move was, and still is, to strengthen the organisation’s ability to generate, capture, store, secure & process Data, within all regulatory stipulations, of course. These foundational elements entail a judicious investment in sensorisation, cloud computing, connectivity & cybersecurity followed by simplification & synergising of IT applications to break data, as well as, process silos. Today, there are industrial startups that would help one do all of that and more to accelerate one’s 4IR journey, limited only by the organisation’s appetite & agility to transform.
The second critical component of the transformation is talent. Since these technologies are here to stay, it would make sense to build a critical mass of certain capabilities in-house but that would be time taking and hence to begin with, it’s ideal to partner with organisations who can fill the talent gaps to kick start the transformation. Organisations must also be discerning on what capabilities they would want to build and retain while buying the others as services, given that these skillsets are high on demand and often hard to acquire and retain in a market that would remain short on supply for the foreseeable future. Skills like Data Engineering, Data Science, Data Visualisation & Business Process Re-engineering with digital as the core enabler, are in high demand as businesses across industries are awakening to the possibilities. While these niche and deep tech skills are necessary for the transformation, they are however not sufficient. For the transformation to be sustainable and irreversible, it is also crucial that the consumers of the technologies are also reskilled, hence a broader capability building exercise needs to be undertaken to bring about better understanding and appreciation for digital technologies across business functions.
The third and possibly the most critical component of the transformation is Business centricity. Business goals must always remain the focus of the transformation, while not getting distracted by the pace and scope of technological prowess, as technology is only a means to the end – a smart, intelligent & agile business. For this to happen, Leadership would need to lead from the front while fueling bottom-up ideation & innovation. A concept like Reverse Mentoring, which was recognised as an Industry best practice by the World Economic Forum (WEF), can help stimulate leadership thinking. Under this programme, a Senior Leader is mentored by a Millennial / Zoomer (Gen Z) on the possibilities of how digital technologies can be used in business functions. Additionally, a robust programme governance brings in the required amount of time and mind share of the leadership to build and sustain the momentum for change.
Organisations would need to get their Technology, Talent & Governance strategies right to be able to ride the ensuing wave of Industry 4.0 and reap timely and meaningful benefits. So, what are these benefits that the businesses must target to achieve? The key to success for any business, is the ability to get decisions right, and on time, and for that to happen it is imperative that the decision makers across levels have access to the right information and insights at the right time. Digital technologies allow us to do just that. Quality and quantity of Data coupled with Data Science techniques provide decision makers with insights from the past as well as reasonably accurate predictions. Hence, the differentiator for businesses today and going forward will be their ability to harness the latent strength of Data. It has the potential to significantly uplift operational efficiency, productivity, throughput and organisational agility to deliver seamless & hyper-personalised experience to all their stakeholders through their products and services. As we continue to progress on this transformation journey, it is also recommended to get an outside-in view via benchmarking exercises, like the WEF’s 4IR Global Lighthouse assessment. We at Tata Steel have been fortunate to receive this recognition for three of our sites at IJmuiden, Kalinganagar and Jamshedpur over the last four years, which has helped validate our strategies and motivated the organisation to continue this journey.
As we continue to leverage the power of Data and ride the 4th wave of Industrial Revolution, it is increasingly becoming apparent as to the steps businesses need to take to stay relevant and be more conscious in their business processes and dealings. Whether it is environmental sustainability or people centricity, a sustainable and profitable business would need to assimilate further into the conscience of the community they operate in, all of which are possible through the application of Industry 4.0 technologies. These aspects of sustainability and community centricity coupled with harmonised human-machine interface and responsible usage of digital technologies would be the defining themes for the 5th Industrial Revolution. While the jury is still out on how the rest of the story will unfold, the subsequent phases of the revolution promises to usher in a world with greater economic prosperity and better standards of living.