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The idea of “digital transformation” is vast enough that, before long, no human activity or industry will be beyond its reach. It might sound scary, but think about how much of our lives we already entrust to digital platforms.
We use the internet to keep in touch with family and friends, search for employment, distribute creative works, make travel plans, buy groceries, find dates and much more.
The large and small business communities have an interesting relationship with technology. Innovation that begins here in the name of efficiency and product throughput have a tendency to trickle through the rest of the economy and society. The digital transformation is all about turning the previous three industrial revolutions’ lessons in mass commercialization into something that can serve every facet of society. “Industry 4.0” is the industry of sharing and experiences, lean manufacturing, automation and clean power.
Let’s take a closer look at the opportunities — and some of the consequences — of digital transformation for industry and society alike.
Better Communication for All
The digital transformation made company-customer relations worse before they got better. As new technologies offered ways for them to add complexity to their products and services, and to branch into new verticals, it got harder and harder to get in touch with these companies. Few companies had the resources for world-class customer support and world-class quality control in equal measure, it seemed.
These days, digital communications offer an almost dizzying number of ways to provide nearly constant interaction between customers and brands — for marketing purposes or personalized troubleshooting at odd hours. Chatbots, plus higher-quality audio and video streaming protocols for live chats over the internet — not to mention social media and forums — have completely changed the game when it comes to customer service.
Intra-company communication can’t be left out either. As they’ve yielded next-generation communication technology, our digital transformations have also given rise to decentralized workplaces. Whether across town or across the globe, companies can think more globally than ever before and draw talent from a broader pool thanks to new ways to stay in touch and keep multiple parties and people in sync. Think about the many easy ways we have today to store documents centrally and always keep them up-to-date for all parties. Then, think about fax machines.
All of these cloud, communication and collaboration protocols are further examples of how a rising tide in industrial life and the business community can improve society in general: Having more communication methods at our disposal is always a good thing.
Higher Standards for Business and Everybody Else
It’s tempting to think of technology as something that dehumanizes us — but does it, really? If anything, the easy availability of an internet connection — and therefore a mouthpiece — has, if anything, encouraged us to act more humanlike.
Society has been rocked even in recent days and weeks by high-profile layoffs, departures and exiles by CEOs, managers, producers, doctors, civil servants, employees and run-of-the-mill citizens behaving badly on the internet or in front of a camera. We clearly haven’t been dehumanized by digital technology, but we might be in the middle of having our collective understanding of “civility” raised a couple of notches.
In the business community, thanks to digital technologies, the increasing visibility of the human faces behind the company curtain have raised standards for things like workplace conditions and conduct, hiring and advancement standards, social inclusivity and ethical product sourcing. To put it another way, consumers have too much information and too many choices to put up with morally questionable brands, products and companies any longer, insofar as they still have the freedom to choose a competitor.
In many ways, we’re being encouraged to hold ourselves to higher standards and become accountable for problems in business and society that have gone unnoticed without a way to raise alarm. Interestingly, AI has revealed significant potential when it comes to eliminating bias and intimidation from what should be a straightforward and equitable process of reporting workplace harassment and other grievances.
Better-Optimized Supply Chains Throughout the World
Supply chain management is a dreary-sounding topic that actually has interesting and far-reaching consequences when things go right or wrong. There isn’t one supply chain in the world, but many — and they bring food, water, medicine, household and consumer products, building materials and everything else that makes civilized life possible to our counties, states and nations. It’s a business that’s always lived and died according to its efficiency and how well it insulates itself against foreseen and unforeseeable events.
Businesses involved in supply chain management, whether they’re the suppliers of unfinished materials or completed products — or a shipping company, or a warehousing operation — were some of the first to recognize the benefits of digital transformation. Enterprise resource planning (ERP) and customer relationship management (CRM) software, especially when coupled with cloud technology and the selective automation of assembly, allow all kinds of manufacturing, transportation and logistics companies to operate with slimmer margins and clearer goals than ever before.
Where does this change leave society? It’s clear that not all the benefits belong to big business. As a collective, we’re getting better at holding large entities accountable for the carbon in our atmosphere, the plastics in our oceans and the antibiotics in our poultry. Modern technology means a better and more ethical supply chain management. And better managing of a supply chain means better managing the planet’s resources, whether it’s chicken and cattle or the plastic used in packaging those animals for retail sale.
Technology helps us better manage the land we use for grazing, helps optimize production and raw material usage in manufacturing plant and helps design products that last longer and don’t harm the planet when they’re discarded or recycled.
Moreover, digital technologies, including RFID, Bluetooth, near-field communication and blockchain have all helped introduce an unprecedented amount of traceability and accountability into the world’s manufacturing and sourcing processes. We know who’s overplayed their hand when it comes to using our resources and, thanks to AI on factory floors and managers’ dashboards, we know how to keep our factories running lean while meeting the demands of a growing world.
Participating in the small or large business community isn’t the only great aspiration worth pursuing, but it’s clear that business represents a way for us to organize and realize the potential of new technologies before, or even while, they’re rolling out to the public.
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