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Getting Productivity Off the Carpet and Into the Dirt

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Image: Feodora Chiosea - Alamy Stock Vector

What CIO doesn’t recognize that the best projects to launch are the ones that offer the easiest business cases? The easiest workers to target with productivity enhancements are those sitting at desks in front of computers, because it’s easy to give them information portals to access applications and data. Since the 1950s, this simple truth has focused our attention on a subset of the workforce, and by doing that has missed a segment of workers just as large, a segment whose feet aren’t sitting on nice carpets in tastefully decorated offices, but in dusty warehouses, grimy factory floors, or perhaps on dirt.

Of course, productivity enhancement isn’t the only target for IT these days. Everyone says that proper use of cloud computing or maybe virtual networking, can cut costs, but it also increases “agility” and “time to opportunity” and so forth. The problem is that if you focus on a new product by focusing on those desk-based workers that are your traditional IT targets, you miss the people who produce and move the goods. A business can hardly call itself agile if it generates the bill for a new product in a week, if but takes a couple months to deliver the product.

Part of the challenge in empowering dirt-floor workers is simply getting them the information that’s supposed to empower them. You can’t work through keyboards and monitors or connect through wires. Smartphones or other hand-held devices can let one of those workers obtain and supply data, but even that isn’t enough; a worker on an assembly line can hardly be expected to stop everything to consult their phone about a part. It’s essential that information to these workers be delivered to them contextually, in the context of their activities and in a way that supports them rather than driving them.

That’s a very big deal. If you think about how we carpet people use computers, you find that we almost always expect the computer and application to frame our activity. We sit down to open a document, rather than having the document pull us into our chair. On the assembly line, though, we have to surrender the decisions of what information to deliver and when to the real-world system we’re supporting. The car is in front of us, and we have to do our job when the “it’s-right-here” condition requires it. Dirt-floor productivity enhancement has to reflect the workflows in order to fit productivity improvements into them.

We’re nibbling at the edges of this today with some IoT applications, particularly applications in the industrial, transportation, and warehousing areas. However, the majority of these applications use sensor data and software to activate control functions, not to empower workers. We call this “automation” and it’s an extension of the whole industrial-revolution thing we started centuries ago, but it’s not addressing those dirt-floor workers and their own productivity. It’s replacing them, and the fact that they still make up about half the workforce demonstrates we can’t entirely replace humans.

What’s the difference between the stuff we’ve been automating and the stuff those unempowered workers are doing? It goes back to context. An automated system is one where the task is a closed loop of machine operations, so the context of each step is set by the application. An empowered system is one where the task’s steps can’t all be automated, and so human activity and machine steps have to be orchestrated together. But who then sets the context of each task?

“Empowering” a production worker can’t be based on the expectation people perform like programmable robots. We have to assume that the model of worker empowerment that succeeded in the office has to somehow be transported off the carpet and onto the dirt. The worker has to drive the contextual bus, and the automated tools have to step in where they can be helpful. I saw an NDA demonstration of an application like this relating to a public utility, where an application directed a worker to a specific place in an outside facility, instructed them to open a panel there, and then provided an image of what to look for inside, and what to do. That demonstrates the basic approach, but could there be more?

What if we equipped workers with the technology we expect to be used in the metaverse, using technology that would sense not only the worker’s location in the real world, but also the worker’s body position and movements? The same sort of thing that would let our avatar mimic our movements and even expressions could be used to guide the worker’s actions precisely. This would let us support a worker by supporting the activities we expect from people doing their jobs. Point-of-activity empowerment, in short. We could offer this either as a means of supporting worker-only activities like my example of a worker in a utility, or as a way of connecting human and automated processes in a safe and fully cooperative way.

You could even link this approach to collaboration. Suppose our worker, walking up to the panel in my example, were to be connected automatically to a plant expert who could talk them through diagnosis and remediation? No need to find out who the expert on the task would be; knowledge of the task through the digital-twin model and context could launch the collaboration, even to the point of showing a diagram or photo to provide further guidance.

There’s more to running a company than pushing papers. The workers who live off the carpet are not only essential to operations, they’re essential to achieving the sort of agility and time-to-innovate that every tech vendor seems to be promising. Their productivity would be worth over three hundred billion dollars per year according to my model of empowerment, and that should be enough to get our attention. The problem is finding someone who could build an empowerment strategy based on digital twin technology. Would Microsoft or Zoom do that? They may have to, because like “pairwise”, “twin” means “two” and there’s a lot of that “two” going around.