Against a backdrop of lethargic growth and productivity, is technology the answer to unlocking future gains in workplace productivity?
In 2014, a Bank of France study reported an “impressive slowdown” in developed countries’ workplace productivity growth between 2000 and 2014. In the period between 2007 and 2013, multi-factor productivity (MFP) fell by 1.7% in the OECD area, despite the emergence of new technology. MFP reflects the overall efficiency with which labour and capital inputs are used together in the production process.
The conundrum is that labour productivity – how hard individual employees work – rose by 3.7% in OECD countries from 2007 to 2013, but overall productivity continued to lag, particularly in the UK. This would suggest that people are working harder, but don’t have the right tools and infrastructure to work efficiently. In response to this, the OECD concluded that getting productivity back on trend would not be about working harder but working smarter.
There are plenty of other factors affecting productivity, such as sluggish investment and lagging business dynamism. The fact is that with ageing societies in the developed world, consistent, technologically-driven productivity increases will be necessary to achieve sustainable growth.
‘Smart technology’ & ‘The Internet of Things’
Smart technology has the potential to positively transform productivity. In the energy sector, for example, smart meter analytics will utilise in-depth customer data and advanced segmentation based on consumption patterns to increase efficiency. Not only will smart technology reduce waste in real time, but it will also feed into predictive analytics that allows us to more accurately estimate (and provide for) future consumption of a good or service. So when you need hot water for your morning shower, there is ample power moving through the grid to ensure you and all your neighbour’s benefit.
Another example of how this technology could directly drive growth is in supermarkets. It is estimated supermarkets could add 3% to their total gross domestic product contribution by using technology which adjusts prices in real-time, based on supply and demand, increasing prices at peak purchasing times and decreasing them during less busy times. Similarly, intelligent machines could increase production in the run-up to a holiday which generates increased demand for a certain product.
The rise of digital networking and video conferencing tools will result in increased labour market access for disadvantaged groups including people with disabilities, unlocking additional value in the economy. For example, a mobility-challenged person might struggle to commute to work every day, but be well capable of working from home, connected to colleagues via digital tools. This could bring valuable skills and economic stimulation to the workforce.
Automation will likely mean a reduction of labour-intensive processes and with parts of the workforce freed up to focus on value-creating opportunities. For instance, machines can now automate the payment-invoice matching process, allowing accountants more time to consider opportunities to add value. This also has the potential to lead to increased employee engagement as they are able to invest time in more interesting tasks and projects, feeding into a cycle of productivity and engagement.
Big data will be better able to measure a return on investment, from marketing performance to employee performance. It’s an important facet of driving productivity because big data allows us to unlock knowledge and insights from vast swathes of information. These insights direct businesses to find better ways of working – concentrating efforts on outputs that enhance business goals.
Big data will also help inform the predictive analytics of smart technology, such as smart meters.
Distributed ledger technology, being less prone to cyber-attack than centralised ledgers, could see employee salaries, taxes and even utility bills paid via blockchain technology for increased security and efficiency.
If the OECD is right, and the future of work is indeed ‘not about working harder but working smarter’, then technology could have a massive impact. From analytics and operational efficiency to increasing employee mobility, technology can have a big role to play as we look to the future.
SAP UK and Ireland
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