Industry 4.0 promises a new level of collaboration between man and machine
Anyone who works in the technology field is likely to say that with today's lightning-fast pace of change, no-one really knows how technology will change business over the next 10 years.
So says Yesh Surjoodeen, device sales lead at Microsoft SA, adding that we are currently sitting on the very edge of Industry 4.0, the potential of which is only becoming apparent now.
"Building upon the birth of internet-enabled telecommunications systems, Industry 4.0 promises a new level of collaboration between man and machine, the age of automation, mass data exchange, proliferation of cyber-physical systems, the Internet of things (IOT), and cognitive computing and artificial intelligence (AI).
"Cold-calling, door-to-door sales techniques are ripe for extinction right now. And gone are the days when businesses could manufacture their product supply and only afterwards go out and pursue demand," he adds.
The digital age has already flipped this power dynamic (with marketing playing the dominant role in attracting consumers), but Industry 4.0 is giving rise to an even more attractive model in which speed and personalisation are becoming defining features.
"Chatbots and social media communication channels are already addressing this need for instant, always-on customer service, but that's just the tip of the iceberg, and other sectors are using tech to improve customer experience (CX) to unimaginable levels of speed and convenience."
Surjoodeen believes it is likely that the manufacturing and retail sectors will feel this change most strongly. In the near future, pre-manufacturing and expensive warehousing and logistical issues will be a thing of the past. "For example, let's say a car owner requires a certain part for their engine. Rather than pulling the item from stock and shipping it across the world, car manufacturers could make their designs available online for anyone to print in a 3D printer, anywhere in the world, at exactly the time the product is needed."
Democratisation of digital resources
Currently one of the most exciting prospects for greater digitisation is the access to information, products and services that will be granted to the world's most underserved communities.
"Let's take healthcare as an example. In a future where voice recognition parity has been convincingly achieved, and millions of people have true interactive AI in their very living rooms, will visiting a GP in person (except in rare cases) even be necessary anymore? AI has already shown itself to be as capable of fast, accurate diagnosis as most doctors are, so at what point will these consultations be fully digitised?"
Even in SA's private healthcare facilities, queues are long, data management is frequently inefficient, and prices continue to exclude the great number of citizens. He says to consider the condition of our public healthcare system as well, and the case for digitisation of such services becomes all the more urgent.
But why stop at healthcare? Technology and connectivity will allow rejuvenation of the third world's educational systems as well, bringing international-quality learning resources to even the poorest learners and the most under-resourced teachers. "And as years go on, the application of augmented and virtual mixed reality, already used in educational and training applications in many industries, will enrich our businesses and our lives in ways that are difficult to imagine today."
"We've discussed customers, and we've discussed employers, but what about employees? No view into the future of business is complete without looking at the workplace itself." Surjoodeen emphasises that more and more businesses are already seeing big benefits from mobile workplace policies, including lower infrastructure costs and higher employee productivity.
Moreover, collaboration technologies such as Microsoft Teams, Skype for Business, Slack, SharePoint and many others, mean that the physical distances between workers count for far less, and this trend is only likely to accelerate in the coming decade, he says.
"Better, smaller, smarter devices mean that working on the go is as efficient as being desk-bound, and even traditional communications, like telephone calls, can be routed anywhere in the world instantly, with a simple VOIP telephony system. We're seeing a renewed call from employees for better work-life balance, and mobility will be an essential component when it comes to attracting top talent and retaining it in the long run."
Creating a 10-year roadmap
However, for businesses hoping to leave their mark through the possibilities that digitisation digital transformation presents, will need a game plan, he adds.
"It won't have to include every new technology out there. For sales-centred businesses, artificial intelligence is a great place to start, while manufacturing businesses will find 3D printing and IOT more in tune with their needs."
Surjoodeen asks us to remember, digitisation digital transformation is not a once-off project, it is a business model transformation, and a long-term investment that doesn't come without some upfront expense, plenty of trial and error, and a considerable amount of fear in this era of cyberthreats and ever-more complicated compliance requirements.
But for those businesses committed to outmanoeuvring the competition, and who take the time to strategise their digital transformations sustainably, the rewards will be more than worth the effort, he concludes.