Blue-collar workers can teach you about 21st century UC
Blue-collar workers can teach you about 21st century UC
The changing nature of knowledge workers requires a rethink in workspace tools for all employees. Camille Mendler explains why enterprises need to think outside the box in unified communications.
Are you a knowledge worker? In the 20th century, that question was easy to answer: if your shirt collar was white, the answer was yes. White-collar workers and knowledge workers were seen as one and the same.
In the 21st century, technology gives every employee the potential to become a knowledge worker. But that will only happen if enterprises remove caste lines in the workforce and give everyone the right tools. Those tools are broadband, connected devices and, not least, unified communications.
Over a century ago, blue-collar workers - in the military and police - were the first to use Guglielmo Marconi's new wireless communications technology. Now, blue-collar workers are often last in line to benefit from communications innovation.
Take mobile UC: empowering mobilized workforces with UC - increasingly via the cloud - is a leading goal among many enterprises. But the overwhelming focus of discussion, particularly among UC vendors, is about how to provide mobile UC to company executives and sales people. These white-collar employees are mobile, but their work is still largely conducted behind a desk.
It's time to rebalance priorities. Field-based blue-collar workers are increasingly expected to contribute business-critical information in their day-to-day activities. This is the core definition of "knowledge working." These highly-mobile workers also need unified communications to collect, assess and share knowledge.
Workspaces are now vastly different than those familiar to business guru Peter Drucker when he first coined the term "knowledge worker" back in 1959. Then, white-collar employees were a high-earning professional elite, while blue-collar employees were often viewed as low-earning manual workers. This stratified view of workforces persists as a hangover from the past when it comes to discussing who can benefit most from technologies like UC.
Drucker was a firm believer in the power of technology to support knowledge-centric enterprises. And technology has certainly transformed human workforces. Over the past two centuries, machines have progressively taken over repetitive, low-value and often manual tasks that humans once performed. Machines reshaped agricultural labor in the 19th century and factory labor in the 20th.
But something fundamentally different is happening in the 21st century. Blue-collar workers haven't disappeared, they've become an elite. Indeed, industries like mining, oil and gas, utilities and maritime are dependent on highly-skilled blue-collar workforces. These workers are increasingly difficult to find and keep, and their compensation can often surpass that of their degree-bearing colleagues.
Another important part of the changing knowledge landscape is that the number of machines is growing exponentially in the 21st century. Connected "machines," such as smartphones, embedded M2M modules, RFID chips, cameras and sensors, have joined the machine world and - despite their small footprint - are as important to productivity as the 19th century's cotton gin. Fundamentally, the purpose of these machines isn't to replace men, but to help men gain better access to knowledge. The non-sentient world of connected machines communicates data, but man needs to interpret and act upon it.
That's why 21st century UC isn't just about men, it's also about including machines in the conversation (see Figure 1). And there is evidence that industries with substantial blue-collar workforces are leading the way in doing this.
Utilities, maritime and oil and gas firms place mobile worker and machine communications firmly among their leading ICT investment priorities (see Figure 2). These priorities are not distinct from each other but directly inter-related. Among these industries, UC carries a literal definition that links men and machines. Machines collaborate with blue-collar workers in the field, reporting on production yields, environmental conditions and hazards on ships, oil rigs, pipelines and track.
In the maritime industry, shipping requires fluent communications between machinery, sensors and employees on ship and shore for efficient navigation to meet stringent delivery deadlines and to ensure safety. Exploration vessels are communicating vast quantities of multimedia information from the ocean floor, which needs rapid analysis between remote teams. Empowered with broadband and UC, connected ships can be integrated into day-to-day business like any branch office.
next generation of workers
Generational change is often a trigger for new UC investments. That's evident in energy-related industries. Besides an acute shortage of skilled blue-collar employees, an entire generation of skilled workers is set to retire in utilities and oil and gas firms. Smaller workforces - often with lone workers - will need greater technology automation and communication to do their jobs well and safely in their increasingly-regulated industries, for instance, using presence tools to locate the nearest available engineer to fix a fault.
Digital oil fields across land and sea are becoming formidable generators of multimedia communications between men and machines. Telepresence from a rig isn't just nice to have - it can be used to make key operational decisions, extend expert collaboration, assess worker health and train remote employees. Cameras and sensors on oil wells can help blue-collar workers determine how to boost yields.
Besides a blue-collar workforce, what links these industries is an acute problem of distance, remote locations and often challenging terrain. Workspaces in these industries are rarely fixed for an extended period of time. Consequently, no single communications infrastructure can feasibly reach all locations. Fiber, satellite, microwave, 3G, LTE, Wi-Fi and other communications technologies are part of the mix, across privately-owned and public network infrastructures.
As a result, UC carries a wider meaning and tougher operational duty for technology suppliers aiming to serve these industries. What's required are technology and management skills spanning diverse communications infrastructures, connected devices, machines and applications.
Only a handful of industries have such stringent, communication-intensive needs. However, technology suppliers that can serve them are worthy of attention. Not only can they demonstrate their support of mission-critical communications, but they also explain why everyone - whatever their collar - can benefit from workforce UC.
Camille Mendler (@cmendler) is Head of Enterprise Verticals at market analysts Informa Telecoms & Media.