These days, technological advancements are happening at a near exponential pace. For businesses, it means two things. One is — you now have access to significantly powerful technology for a quite affordable investment, and two — due to the democratization of technology at such a level, everyone, including your known and unknown competitors have access to the same technology. Which essentially means, now you cannot afford not to get involved and adopt it sooner than later.
But as the saying goes, “With great power comes great responsibility.” When you are getting access to these powerful tools and technologies to use in your business, deploying the right tools in the right places at the right time becomes almost mandatory. It hasn’t been any different in the past. However, due to the scale at which technology can now make an impact, it demands a higher level of sanity and responsibility.
Promises of Industry 4.0 revolution
The current trend is Industry 4.0, and it promises many things that do not exist today. Additionally, what it also promises is a higher level of efficiency and productivity, which in turn can impact your top-line and bottom-line quite favorably.
And to a more considerable extent, the delivery of these promises has been a plausible feat. Several emerging technology players are trying their hand in products and services that can be said to be contributing to Industry 4.0 deliverables. Many companies, especially from the ICT sector are part of solution development, and fields like IoT, Machine Learning (ML), and Artificial Intelligence (AI) are being leveraged heavily for in achieving these goals.
This revolution brings on improvements on several levels. One such significant improvement is — increased visibility, where the fundamental objective is improving the visibility of the operations and all other internal processes to begin with.
Having increased visibility of operations and other processes can then enable in improving various key metrics of businesses. It becomes possible due to improved transparency and understanding of your own business at a much deeper level. And eventually, these improvements can lead to improved profitability and business agility. That is the ultimate and overall goal of Industry 4.0.
Additionally, the economic benefits of the Industry 4.0 revolution are several and can provide a significant boost to the economy of a particular sector that is imbibing it sincerely. With improved connectivity between supply chains and customers, thanks to real-time production information, logistics, and monitoring, it is becoming easy to compete in global markets. Businesses are becoming capable of capturing emerging opportunities with innovative business models.
You get what you ask for
Asking the right questions is not only crucial from information seeking perspective in general but also can help in unveiling the unknowns. The fact that you don’t know what you don’t know poses a significant barrier when you deal with emerging technologies. In my opinion, the best way to break that barrier is by asking the right questions and seeking answers.
Emerging technology projects can come in different sizes and flavors. Some are only IoT deployments, some are only AI implementations, and some could be a combination of both. When you want to do any of this, you must take control of planning and architecture early on. If you shy away from asking the right questions at the outset, you may end up with subpar solutions that have poor yield, or you may waste your investment all together by doing something that doesn’t affect your key metrics.
You always get what you ask for. If you ask for tough questions early on, that may seem to be delaying the implementation. However, remember that it is for the greater good. It is an oft case with new products and technologies, novelty sells! You do not want to buy a fancy and costly toy system, but instead want to set the foundation, which will boost your business manifold.
Here are five key questions you should be asking as you plan to begin your journey. Even if you have already started, it is not too late — you can still ask these questions and course-correct as you go.
What is your long-term strategy concerning using emerging technology for your business?
Ask yourself and your leadership team, how your strategic roadmap looks like or should look like after deploying these high-tech solutions. If you do not have one, work on it already. It is a must-have requirement before you take the next steps.
Remember that the use of emerging technologies is a direction and not a destination. Consequently, your roadmap should show evolution, stage by stage. And for each milestone or critical step, it will be essential to document, which business metric will improve and what is the expected outcome.
This strategic roadmap will then be your guiding document, a north star of a kind for your entire journey of transformation. This document, however, can be live in nature such that it will evolve, and you might make amendments in your strategy and expectations from time to time.
Do you have the capability to see through these deployments?
Emerging technology projects demand a wide range of skills and in-depth knowledge of several aspects of the business for successful outcomes. Not having the right capability within the in-house team could become an impediment. However, if this is the case, you can decide early on how to handle this.
While it would be ideal to have talent in-house and as a part of your core business team, if this is not possible, getting external support is the next thing you should do. Make sure you lay your expectations well when looking for external help. It will help in sourcing the right support.
However, there is one thing you should watch out for. Do not rely on your vendors to provide this leadership or guidance in this matter. There is an apparent conflict of interest and hence not recommended. Your emerging technology vendor(s) should only be responsible for the delivery side of things. In contrast, product and project ownership, as well as accountability, will always remain with your internal leadership team members. Compromising on this aspect usually leads to adverse consequences.
Do you have the right infrastructure to kick off advanced emerging technology projects?
Answer to this question can indicate your preparedness from the technological standpoint. Your business leadership might be ready to accept the challenge and get started with the emerging journey, but your current infrastructure would be one of the weakest links of critical chain.
Have a realistic view of the state of your current IT infrastructure and capability. Augmenting IT infrastructure for IoT or AI projects is not a “click and buy” thing, it can take significant time and budget to get ready. If there is any gap or you do not feel confident about its fitness for the purpose, fixing that first would be a prudent step.
Process maturity is another aspect that you should focus on. Along with IT infrastructure, having your operational processes at a significantly mature level is highly recommended. If that is not the case, there would be several iterations along the way due to continuous changes in requirements and improvisations that it would entail. It clearly would put a dent on the budget and delay the implementation beyond acceptable limits. Change fatigue involved while doing this could soon drain energy from people and demoralize them, which can be another significant issue.
Data readiness is the third critical aspect. You should not think about AI solutions of any size if you have questions about your data capabilities. AI solutions demand a massive amount of data to perform at acceptable levels, and IoT solutions can generate this data. However, if you do not know what to collect as data, that can be a significant problem. Your IoT solution will give you massive data sets, but all of that could be useless if your data requirements are not clearly defined and have direct linkage with your critical metrics of the business.
Do you have a measurement system in place?
Like every other project, IoT & AI projects will have a honeymoon period for a while. Once this is over, stakeholders would be interested in real, measurable business value.
If the key metrics are not identified upfront and linked to the outcomes of the project, this could be an issue. The impact must be identified and validated upfront, way before you start the project so that you would know what to expect and when. It also means you should be able to pull the plug and stop the project if it is not adding any value to your key metric.
Having a cool technology implemented in your business may give you some bragging rights, but it wouldn’t contribute to your top-line or bottom-line. Therefore, there should be a clear linkage of each business metric with each planned initiative. This linkage ideally should be established as a first step when you start the project. Establish, how the change in metric will be measured, what is acceptable change, and what is your lower limit. This measurement system will help you keep marching forward or to take a pause and rework as you progress through several deployments across your entire roadmap.
How would you handle security and compliance aspects going forward?
Emerging technology solutions are known for nasty surprises, and their detrimental impact could cost you a fortune. There can be significant negative impact operationally, or it may cause considerable reputational stress.
Cyber-security is slightly different from IoT/AI security, and it must be acknowledged as you initiate the journey. Having the right expertise at disposal from the beginning will ensure that your initiatives do not have any loopholes and are defensible from various possible threats.
IoT and AI audit functionality are essential to have throughout the journey. At any point in time, you should be able to see what happened, how, and why. A fully auditable and retraceable system enables your business to be transparent. It is quite crucial in the case of negative consequences.
Also, think about disaster recovery planning (DRP) and business continuity planning (BCP), just in case these projects do not work out as expected. I have seen several projects that do not get delivered on time or do not get delivered at all, which calls for operational roll-back to the status-quo. That is not only required during the implementation phase, but you may also need it on an ongoing basis. If, for whatever reason, you have to take your smart systems offline, can your business function as usual? If the answer is no, make sure this BCP is put in place first before rollout starts.
By any means, these five questions are not the only questions you should be asking. There is a much broader debate on each item, as well as its answer. How you handle that flow from thereon until its logical follow-through is complete, is all up to you. And if done in the right manner, it should give you enough confidence to move further. Whereas, if you do not get answers you want, it will prompt you to go back to the drawing board and redo the strategy and planning for good.
There are great opportunities for the manufacturing sector, especially small and medium enterprises, to make manifold progress by leveraging emerging technologies. Albeit, having appropriate progression roadmap, right business problems to solve for, and capability to handle & work-up these technologies for the business benefit are a few essential requirements.
As I keep saying, “When working with emerging technologies — sanity is the key!”; and part of this sanity, you can imbibe by asking the right questions before embarking on any emerging technology project journey. There are a host of challenges to tackle once these projects kick-off.
For now, remember, “Well begun is half done, and asking the right questions is part of it!”