Digital Transformation: New Techniques and Technologies Disrupt Accumulated Expertise

Let’s discuss the “human factor” of successful digital transformation and why it is imperative to transform workforce skills.

Let’s discuss the “human factor” of CIMdata’s Critical Dozen for successful digital transformation and why it is imperative to transform workforce skills. In summary, this article addresses:

  • Prioritizing the new digital skills required.
  • Developing sound educational approaches to the transition.
  • Understanding some of the consequences.

This article also considers a trio of uncomfortable workforce realities.

  1. Increasingly we base our business decisions and actions on analyzing data, meaning there is less reliance on the experience and insights held in the heads of key people. This is due to innovations in analytics as well as access to the vast amount of available information in the Cloud (a.k.a. Big Data) which resides outside the enterprise’s own repositories.
  2. The obsolescence of expertise and skills acquired over entire generations of the workforce. In every software marketplace, solution providers vie to automate processes and tasks. Clever new tools, features and functions are sidelining even the most specialized processes and isolated tasks.
  3. Inadequate skills and the scarcity of workers with the basic technical qualifications needed for the collaboration and the product and process innovation today’s new products require.

There are enormous implications here for the workforce day-to-day, for the ultimate success of digital transformation, and for the long-term competitiveness of the enterprise. So I am offering a proven educational approach to tackle these unprecedented challenges.

In my previous engineering.com articles, I covered 11 of the 12 trends and enablers of digital transformation. For a reminder, they are:

  1. End-to-end connectivity
  2. Data and process management
  3. Configuration management (CM)
  4. Bills of information (BoI)
  5. Model-based structures
  6. Digital thread
  7. Digital twin
  8. IoT and product lifecycle management (PLM)
  9. Changing views of the “product”
  10. Big data & analytics
  11. Data governance (DG)
  12. Digital skills transformation

All of them have been with us for decades and are discussed and analyzed endlessly; yet, despite nearly universal agreement on their importance, digital transformation at many enterprises is incomplete. In many cases, it is limited or even stalled because the “people” element of connecting “people, processes, and technologies” is often forgotten or minimized.

The 12 trends and enablers, which I often refer to as the Critical Dozen, are interdependent; each element shares some capabilities with others. Moreover, many of these elements are converging. The links between them are assumed to be in place and in working order, but we all know they are not. In fact, we hear too little about these persistent disconnects.

The good news is that the workforce—the enterprise’s biggest asset—is generally aware of this situation and waiting only for management and leadership to act. In many enterprises, of course, workforce transition is already underway.

My hope is that these articles, and more detailed ones to follow, can prod users, management and leadership to make the necessary changes and help them get it right the first time. If we fail at workforce transition, enterprise innovation and competitiveness will continue to lag. Even worse, we could lose the benefits of decades of investment in digital transformation technologies and process enhancement.

We cannot and should not tolerate this. The following three examples demonstrate some of the reasons why.

Why We Must Focus on the Human Element of Digital Transformations

EXAMPLE #1. Digital transformation and its end-to-end (E2E) connectivity have innumerable positive impacts on innovation and the competitiveness of an enterprise. However, these are profound changes that bring massive upheaval, which we must address by upgrading workforce skills—and the sooner, the better.

Pre-production, E2E links everything from initial requirements through manufacturing. Post-production, E2E links relevant feedback from users in the field, augmented by the Internet of Things (IoT) and its potential for continuous marketplace updates.

The E2E tools are widely available to automate flows of data and information through the enterprise’s threads, webs, networks, repositories and a vast number of databases. The workforce must learn to use these tools and cost-justify their implementation; these skills should be a priority for data managers in engineering and manufacturing. A huge benefit of E2E connectivity is easier access to information hoarded in departmental and business-unit databases (“silos”).

EXAMPLE #2. The Circular Economy requires a complete rethink of design and how we manage the entire E2E lifecycle. This rethink accommodates product recycling and much more—reduction in complexity, for example, plus reuse, materials recovery, resynthesizing, remanufacturing, and even repurposing for entirely new tasks. In the Circular Economy domain, these are known as the reX’s.

For this to happen, the workforce must update its skills and approaches to new-product development, beginning with advanced materials that are lighter, stronger, “greener,” and sometimes more difficult to manufacture—or that require newer manufacturing techniques and technologies. Along with advanced materials, design rethinks often entail the use of generative design (starting with raw data rather than preconceived product notions), additive manufacturing (3D printing), artificial intelligence (AI) to locate a given task’s most relevant data, machine learning (ML) to help incorporate the data in new requirements and designs and perhaps even virtual/augmented reality capabilities.

These new approaches should be a priority in design-engineering units. The capabilities enable the visualization of the product in each of its phases—a big boost for the collaboration and nonstop product and process innovation on which the enterprise’s future depends.


EXAMPLE #3. Systems Engineering, i.e., considering and designing the entire product and its supporting systems (e.g., manufacturing, logistics and after-sales service) instead of producing a pile of constituent parts from disconnected organizational units and their associated processes. This requires a systems of systems mindset, one that understands the need to develop requirements as a set of good characteristics for design and use that to accommodate the electronics, content and software in today’s physical products. These characteristics must also ensure conformance to tooling and fixturing requirements, the needs of field service and the appropriate reX’s—if a company really wants to maximize its return on investment.

Systems engineering means the workforce must acquire new data-modeling and analysis skills in, for example, topology data analysis (TDA), predictive analytics and Agile software development practices. Product developers should prioritize these skills because they are indispensable for innovation during shorter product lifecycles and demands for higher first-time quality.

What Humans Must Do to Adopt Digital Transformations

We constantly hear that digital transformation frees the enterprise’s data and information from paper and all sorts of unnecessary document formats. Less often are we informed that digital transformation mandates a sweeping upgrade of the skills of all employees and decision-makers.

Successful workforce transition should lead to a “Smart Connected” workforce—people as connected to each other as they are to their tools and processes. “Smart” here means a new level of tech-savvy, (i.e., knowing where all the digital pieces are and how they fit together). “Connected” means having the skills to maximize the benefits of the web and network nodes already in place, plus the ability to code new links as new nodes are found or established.

To ensure success, workforce transition must not be undertaken lightly or piecemeal. It extends beyond design, development and manufacturing—on which I have focused up to this point—to reach everybody on the payroll. A successful workforce transition ultimately reaches every business unit in the extended enterprise—shipping, purchasing, marketing, maintenance, finance, support staff and all the others.

Workforce transition must also broaden the technical horizons of mid-level managers and enlighten skeptical enterprise leaders. Suppliers, partners and distributors must not be overlooked.

How to Ensure Humans Adopt Digital Transformations

Workforce transition is not another brush-up or an out-of-office skills refresher. Nor is it limited to software training courses (i.e., how to click the buttons). It will completely upend the superficial forms of “training” common in many enterprises. To be sure of success, the transition must start with a framework that clarifies the digital skills required by each business unit’s new tools and processes plus a detailed roadmap for acquiring and instilling those skills.

An effective framework is ongoing and quasi-academic; its components should include:

  • Defining affected user communities, their needs and desired outcomes.
  • Establishing priorities, objectives and goals.
  • Outlining topics and skills based on user experiences both good and bad.
  • Determining the current state of knowledge and any gaps therein.
  • Detailing requirements in new skills, knowledge and understanding of the tools and processes in the examples above, systems thinking/engineering and E2E connectivity.
  • Identifying instructional resources including those of solution providers.
  • Securing funding.
  • Establishing accountability for the resulting framework and its execution.

Successful workforce transition also requires sustainability. Ongoing issues will include the education and training of new hires, keeping instructional materials up to date and under change control, developing refresher courses, identifying new concerns and shortcomings, changing priorities and establishing a help desk with an associated knowledge repository.

Implementing digital transformation in conjunction with E2E connectivity ensures broad and deep access to the data and information that everyone needs to create the enterprise’s new products, services and processes. This connectivity must be bidirectional, lest they become useless over time. Repositories and databases upstream in design and development must be updated every time products, services and/or processes are modified, whether during manufacturing or in the hands of users.

This new access provided by E2E connectivity can slash the time spent finding needed data, which often accounts for two-thirds of engineers’ workdays. This translates directly into more effective collaboration, faster innovation and greater individual productivity. Given the scarcity of qualified workers and shrinking product lifecycles, boosting productivity grows more urgent every day—reinforcing the need for careful prioritization.

As I noted at the outset of this article, every enterprise and every workforce faces three realities. One, business decisions and actions are increasingly based on data analytics rather than the experience of key people. Two, the erosion by automation of many once highly regarded skills. And three, the scarcity of qualified workers. None of these realities must be permitted to get in the way of transitioning the skills of the workforce and maximizing the advantages that come with the Critical Dozen’s trends and enablers.

I hope that my continuing in-depth coverage of the Critical Dozen will convince management to line up workforce training and tutorials, prioritizing them carefully. When the workforce, management and leadership comprehend and implement the Critical Dozen, the big returns on investment promised by digital transformation will benefit the entire enterprise.

Connectivity, collaboration and product and process innovation move forward together or not at all. The biggest challenge is transitioning employee and management skills into a Smart Connected Workforce.

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