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Lessons About the Future of Work from Accenture

When we talk about the digital revolution and the future of work, we often focus on cutting-edge tech companies, software providers, and other organizations that are firmly situated in the realm of “knowledge work.” But as argued in a recent series of articles from global management consulting and professional services firm Accenture, the digital revolution is affecting every corner of the commercial and business landscape—from utility companies to manufacturing plants to long-distance transport firms.

Automation, artificial intelligence, and other digital innovations are entering all corners of the economy, bringing a bigger technology component into more and different types of jobs. “From the travel industry to healthcare and manufacturing,” writes Accenture’s Martjin Smit, “every industry must be prepared to head out into unknown lands.”

Not only will this ongoing transformation change the nature and the experience of blue-collar work, it could also bring an increasing number of knowledge workers out of the tech hubs and into more diverse industries. Here are a few examples of where the digital disruption might be taking us next.

A Revolution in Factory Work

The new generation of professionals that’s now entering the workforce are “digital natives,” especially those born after 1995, who spent their formative years glued to their smartphones. They grew up with modern technology embedded into almost every facet of their lives. “For them, the digital revolution and its myriad possibilities are the norm,” writes supply chain senior manager Adriana Begeer from the Netherlands. “By implementing these technologies and integrating them into production processes, the resources industry has the opportunity to align work experiences with the latent skills of its workforce, leveraging modern capabilities to empower workers and drive efficiency.”

As Boomers continue the march toward retirement, past fears about an aging population of factory workers being unable to adapt to changes in technology will eventually fade away, given that the rising generations were raised in a digital world. They grew up in an environment where change and adaptation were constant—new tech tools, new consoles, new operating systems, new apps, new versions of old apps. Besides, technology is getting easier and easier for everyone to use. As leadership and organizational health expert Patrick Lencioni told Workfront in a past interview, “I think that there’s going to be some older workers who struggle with technology. But I think that the nature of technology is becoming easier and more fluid. I think we’re actually going to see less of differentiation there” between younger and older workers.

He’s right. As technology becomes ever more ubiquitous and user friendly, with UI experts continuously catering to the lowest common dominator, the old barriers to tech adoption don’t necessarily apply.

Furthermore, says Begeer, “both technology and executive vision are converging. Our research has shown that there is strong support for these new concepts throughout the resources and manufacturing sectors. Industry leaders clearly understand the impact this can have on their competitive advantage, from data-driven performance enhancements to a more powerful, digitally-enabled workforce.”

More Efficient Field Operations

A whole host of infrastructure jobs require utility workers to travel from one site to the next, performing installations, making repairs, and completing other types of service calls. The digital revolution is improving not only their efficiency in the field but also their ability to stay in the job longer, despite some of the physical limitations that come with age.

“Due to inefficient and old-fashioned work methods, unnecessary amounts of time are lost on work preparation, travel time and administration,” writes Accenture digital managing director Geert Batterink. But when you can digitally connect workers in the field to back-end systems in real time—including client services, a logistical center, planning and scheduling, and asset management—you reap wide ranging benefits. You eliminate a whole layer of administration and communication, you reduce the chance for field error, and you maximize the efficiency (while reducing unnecessary travel time) for your mobile workers.

“A digital field force will lead to an increase in efficiency,” Batterink says, “as people will be administratively unburdened, enjoying better day-to-day planning of their activities and thus, an optimal start of their work.”

Furthermore, he points out that skilled specialists in utility companies are slowly aging out of the talent pool. “When they retire, they’ll be taking a priceless accumulation of knowledge and experience with them,” he says. “To preserve their technical, functional and soft skills, a digital transformation is necessary.” And it’s already underway.

Here’s an example of how this works. Utility companies must know where all assets (such as pipes) exist out in the field, and a digitally connected Geographical Information System (GIS) helps them do that. But more than providing simply the location and type, the system will ideally help engineers determine what kinds of materials are in each location, what tools might be required, and whether additional safety precautions need to be taken.

Batterink shares the example of a Dutch water company that took things to yet another level. “Combining their work management system with their GIS,” he writes, “they created a field service app that their engineers now use to receive work orders from the planning department and client details from the back-office. Thanks to the application, they can navigate to the location, look up connections on the spot, perform their administrative tasks and, if necessary, make location adjustments on the map. All information is adjusted in the systems in real time, effectively rendering trips to the office obsolete.”

The Global Potential of Extended Reality

If you fold together concepts like virtual reality, augmented reality, and immersive digital experiences, you get a term Accenture likes to call “extended reality” or XR. It’s a way to erase the barriers of distance and place, and 80% of executives believe it will be important to further close the gap of physical distance when engaging with employees and customers in the future.

In what ways? Imagine a fully immersive real-estate solution that will allow buyers to “visit” a potential property digitally, without leaving home. Or more effective long-distance teaching or team collaboration. Or greater resources for training workers to navigate potentially dangerous or hazardous situations, without risk to life and limb, especially in law enforcement and the military, not to mention construction and engineering projects. The potential of ER is truly unlimited, and its emergence illustrates how the digital revolution is continually marching into new spaces and industries, bringing centralized solutions and connectedness into every corner of the modern business landscape—blue collar, white collar, and everything in between.

While the exact shape of the future is continuing to unfold, it’s increasingly clear that every industry, without exception, benefits from centralized digital solutions that provide a single source of truth, top-to-bottom transparency, improved communication and collaboration, and tech-enabled connection that erases the barriers that have been holding businesses and individuals back for centuries.

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