Workforce education becomes an essential task

Five essential competencies for the digital era identified.

By Kevin Parker, CFE Media November 11, 2017

At Emerson’s recent user conference, the always thoughtful management of Emerson Automation Solutions discussed work’s changing nature.

The U.S. manufacturing sector experienced 4.0% productivity growth from 1990 to 2000, and 4.7% from 2000 to 2007. Analyses of productivity growth statistics can be highly speculative. At the time, however, experts and media credited computerization for these productivity gains.

Since then, productivity growth has stagnated at about 1.5%. Yet computerization has continued apace. If digitalization was the cause of productivity growth in the 1990s and in the first decade of the 21st century, what caused the subsequent productivity growth slowdown?

Computers today are communication devices in support of the coordination of work, as much as they are anything else. If the network is the computer, then advances depend on integration, and just 50 years into the computer revolution we’re faced with a multi-layered installed base. In fact, integration seems to be the constraining challenge. Moving forward, while remaining cognizant of legacy systems, has proved complex and daunting. 

Essential competencies

Another kind of "installed base" is the industrial work force involved. In the last 40 years, many kinds of work were transformed, and quantified, as computerization supported work-process reengineering.

At the conference, Emerson tackled the topic during a briefing on "essential competencies for an empowered digital workforce."

"The past 30 years have brought fantastic advances in the manufacturing sector, including greater operating efficiencies enabled by automation. But the incremental gains are diminishing," said Mike Train, executive president, Emerson Automation Solutions.

The silver lining will come with an emerging generation of technologies able to revitalize productivity gain, as in the former era. However, the work force is the essential piece. "The readiness and capacity for change is limited," said Train.

Emerson is expanding its service offerings to help fill the gap. What industry needs, Emerson said, is an increased focus on education and upskilling along with improved organizational workflows to effectively leverage their technology investments. An analysis commissioned by Emerson of the organization behaviors of Top Quartile industry performers indicated five essential competencies for the digital era.

Automated workflow allow focus on exceptions requiring human intervention. Analytics and embedded expertise reduce complexity. Workforce upskilling empowers personnel to acquire knowledge and experience more quickly. Mobility provides access to information regardless of location. Change management accelerates institutionalization of operational best practices. 

Expectations expanding

"Process control has been digitalized already," said Peter Zornio, chief technology officer, Emerson Automation Solutions. "Users expect real-time information, embedded expertise, and a closed-loop system. We can now do the same thing for other type operations, including reliability, safety, and energy, for example. In the new era, core production workers will be focused on collaboration, interpretation, and analytics, rather than data collection and reporting."

We remember the past and look forward to the future, but where are we at this moment? One last quotation taken from the user conference provides a hint:

"Wireless is arguably the most impactful technology for industrial manufacturers since the introduction of digital instrumentation more than three decades ago," said Bob Karschnia, VP and general manager, wireless, Emerson Automation Solutions. "Industrial wireless combined with smart sensors are the foundation to support cloud-based applications, remote monitoring, and other IIoT programs over the next decade."

Kevin Parker, senior contributing editor, CFE Media,