To summarise the argument so far, the potential of Industry 4.0 will only be fully realised if the technology-led approaches of previous eras are rejected and there is a reconciliation of what might be seen as two conflicting models, one focused on structure and order in order to attain the rational organisation of work, and the other in which creativity and human dialogue drive innovation:
In reconciling these two models, our starting point lies with the vast and growing body of evidence demonstrating that workplace practices which empower employees to contribute ideas and be heard at the most senior levels of an organisation lead to improved productivity and capacity for innovation, as well as enhanced workforce health and engagement. Such practices have increasingly been described as ‘workplace innovation’ since the early years of the present century.
The Fifth Element provides practical and actionable insights into evidence and experience underpinning workplace practices associated with high performance, innovation and quality of working life. It also offers a practical, sense-making approach to how digital technologies can enhance high performance, capacity for innovation and quality of working lives.
Workplace innovation and digital technologies: creating synergies in practice
Organisations have choices in the way that they implement new technologies. Technologies can be used to remove or deskill jobs or to use and develop workforce skills more effectively by making jobs more complex, challenging and intrinsically satisfying.
The question then becomes one of informing and shaping that decision process: less “what can the technology do?” and more “workplace innovation enables us to build a high performing organisation: how can technology support it?”
Workplace innovation is defined by specific bundles of working practice that are strongly associated with the simultaneous realisation of high performance and high quality working lives. The section explores how these bundles (as defined by The Fifth Element) provide the framework for technological investment fully aligned with organisational strategy and potential.
As we have seen in other modules, building workplaces in which employees can develop and deploy their competencies and creative potential begins with job design and self-managed teamworking.
Robotic technologies can play a role in removing repetitive, physically demanding, low-skill work in ways that enable employees to focus on higher value tasks. We are aware of cases, such as the Danish manufacturing company BM Silo, in which shopfloor workers were trained in programming skills and given time to “play” with the robots in order to find ways of deploying them that enhanced their own productivity and job quality (Dorte Martinsen – MD, BM Silo, Workplace Innovation Masterclass, Stirling, 4th November 2019). The development of cobots (collaborative robots responsive to worker movements and capable of learning) further enhances the potential for human-centred technological deployment (source).
Job complexity and discretion can also be supported by remote assistance aids to support problem solving and decision-making without micro-management or immediate supervision, whilst at the same time reducing quality and compliance risks. Such technologies include augmented reality headsets capable of ‘walking’ employees through unforeseen or previously unencountered tasks together with 3-way calling from remote locations.
Technologies support self-managed teamworking through the wide distribution of intelligence and information. Real time data can be push across the organisation, enabling and empowering team-based planning and scheduling as well as responsive decision-making on the job. Cornerstone, a Scottish organisation employing 2000 social care workers, made a radical shift towards a flat structure using collaborative technologies which allow self-managed team to balance workloads remotely, reflecting unpredictable client needs in real time.
Data flows also enable teams to see the impact of their own performance on other parts of the organisation, and to inform learning and improvement.
Hierarchical management layers inevitably put distance between decision-making and the frontline, disempowering and diminishing the voice of those at the lower levels as well as creating an implementation gap. Hierarchy breeds caution amongst managers, encouraging decisions to be delegated upwards with consequent loss of productivity and responsiveness. Vertically organised structures create silos and add to the difficulties of building bridges between functional specialisms. This often causes frustration in resolving day-to-day issues and can have a particularly negative effect on the capacity for innovation.
Flat organisations rely on a decentralised approach to management and require a high degree of employee involvement in decision-making. Control in flat companies lies in mutual agreements between self-managing, self-organising and self-designing teams and employees who take personal responsibility for satisfactory outcomes. This in turn empowers employees, facilitates information sharing, breaks down divisions between roles, shares competencies, and uses organisation-wide reward systems.
Automated alignment and presentation of data across the organisation can support flatter structures by enabling horizontal decision-making between teams, better integrated product/service flow, faster problem solving, and freeing managers from involvement in routine planning and problem solving.
Continuous improvement is now widely understood as a driver of quality and efficiency, and many organisations build a set of internal reflexive mechanisms designed to harness the day-to-day experiences of employees. Systematic opportunities for shared learning and ‘productive reflection’ are well embedded in these workplaces. Connected information systems can provide the foundations for continuous improvement, monitoring and distributing performance data horizontally across the business to identify and inform opportunities for change.
Beyond incremental improvements, studies of innovation emphasise the importance of large numbers of people empowered to act in entrepreneurial ways in pursuit of shared goals. Connected business and social communication systems, available to all employees irrespective of location, stimulate creative thinking and enable collaborative innovation; these technologies can include ideation platforms, online forums and distributed access to data.
Workplace innovation defines leadership as a creative and collective process, less concerned with the central, charismatic individual and more with the creation of opportunities for employees to seize the initiative and contribute to decision making. Such ‘shared and distributed leadership’ relates to a concern with empowerment and building organisational capability; it is therefore a key element of workplace innovation in that it helps to release the full range of employee knowledge, skills, experience and creativity.
Technology can help to close the gap between leaders and their employees. Integrated business and social communication systems accessible throughout the workforce enable real-time two-way interaction from the shop floor to the senior team, improving decision-making by bringing together the strategic perspectives of senior teams with the tacit knowledge of frontline workers. These technologies enable the challenges and opportunities facing senior teams to be addressed through early engagement and open dialogue with relevant employees, co-creating solutions rather than imposing them from the top.