Continuing our series of specialist speed lectures from the University of Salford’s Business School, GM Business Connect interviewed Dr Gordon Fletcher, Academic Unit Head of International Operations and Information Management. Gordon’s role encompasses a great many areas of interest for us as a business magazine, but it was the topic of Industry 4.0 and the Internet of Things that we wanted to know more about, particularly with respect to the business community.
Please describe your role within the University of Salford’s Business School?
“My official title is ‘Academic Unit Head’, a head of department. My unit is Operations and Information Management which covers many things – for example digital business, business management, sports programmes, project management, procurement, events and more.
It is interesting because it involves diverse opinion and approaches, meaning a ‘holistic’ view is needed.”
Tell us about Industry 4.0 and the ‘Internet of Things’?
“This opens up a big list of topics. Industry 4.0 is the label for many technologies, attitudes
and perspectives that meet together. When we speak to people with specific problems and challenges, they often view technology as ‘the solution’ that will ‘save’ them, but this is inaccurate. The reality is that the technological aspect is part of the chain of change and as much as tech is probably a necessity in the solution, it is also about how people work and collaborate together. As well as being up to date on the latest technologies, it is equally important to understand and be aware of the ‘people side’. When talking about 4.0, we find ourselves talking about collaboration, sharing innovation and the openness or transparency of businesses.
“Businesses need to be transparent, permeable and genuinely visionary, rather than seeking a pre-made solution to just ‘insert’ into their operation. It is a challenge to make businesses aware of the important people side, partially because there are a lot of headlines around that talk about internet of things and machine learning.”
What is the Internet of Things?
“I like the definition ‘it’s the network of noisy things’. Industry 4.0 is about the connectivity of many machines, devices and ‘noisy things’. Traditionally objects are passive things that don’t relate to other things, but Internet of Things objects are active and connected – constantly feeding back information producing huge amounts of data and communicating back to a central point. For example, if you sit on a chair, it doesn’t do anything beyond support you. If you sit on an Internet of Things chair, that chair will immediately respond that there is a certain weight on itself, duration of time, temperature and so on. The usefulness of this is that such a chair could calculate when it should be replaced or in more complex circumstances it could include the health monitoring of employees. The flip side is that some ethical concerns can be raised over issues of the surveillance society and the monitoring of employees or customers in all manner of ways.”
How does it apply to business, like an average SME?
“The challenge for SMEs is the application of what seems like ‘big’ technologies. Often the particular case for using a technology is not as evident for a smaller business as it might be for the larger ones. Sometimes, their preparedness to take up such technologies is shaped by the examples of larger organisations, but the technologies might not be really suited to those smaller operations. There can also be a fundamental cost issue, although technology is tending to become cheaper and cheaper. Often as not, the organisation needs to think about how they will identify and use the technology they need. The number of devices that we could class as being in the Internet of Things is huge. At consumer level, you could look at, for example, baby monitoring devices. Then you go to the next level, a small organisation that might be short on resources and people, and here we would look at the opportunity for using Internet of Things technology. For example, devices that can monitor themselves and decide when they need replacing can save time and substitute the need for someone to physically go and check all those devices.”
The ability to identify a need seems key. How would a business go about this?
“At one level, the key is to identify a particular problem. Rather than seeing all the technology available as offering a solution, you need to analyse the problem. The business with a problem has a challenge that it needs to address. Suppliers who are producing technology to solve problems want to sell it and aren’t necessarily identifying with any one specific case. Instead, a business manager should analyse what is needed before looking at opportunities to use technologies. That’s where Universities can help with analysis as they are sense-makers taking a critical view, evaluating the options and can identify the best paths.”
Is there then a route for businesses to use Universities to help them decide on using tech?
“This is absolutely hitting on the challenge: not only for business to access Universities’ knowledge but also for Universities to understand how to offer their knowledge. Traditionally how this knowledge exchange works between the two has unfortunately been rather opaque. Knowledge exchange within the classroom is one thing, but knowledge exchange in respect to working with and understanding businesses, their challenges and charting a path toward solutions, is what Universities are now geared up for. We have been working recently on a knowledge exchange with a local company, developing an analytical tool for their business. They approached us because they wanted to tap in to an existing knowledge base here. It’s an 18 month project and the outcome is that the business will have an analytical software tool at the core of its operation, which will be the basis for new business. It’s a two way street and we have learned a lot from working with that company.”
Should more businesses think of approaching yourselves?
“Yes. The value a University can bring is as valuable as any consultant, if not more where a University department may have 25 people with knowledge and a range of perspectives. For many SMEs, hiring a traditional consultancy can be a luxury beyond budget, so working with a University can be exceptionally cost effective especially with grants available for Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTP)s. Also, for any business with a challenge, the pathway to a solution is probably embedded within a University. Academics are probably already aware of the issue, as these are people who spend time scanning horizons for new ideas. We look for examples in the now because these will resonate best with our students and relate strongly with what they hear in the media and so on.”
What are the academic challenges of looking at Industry 4.0? Are you worried about the pace of development of technology on a traditionally structured learning process?
“I think this is one of the big challenges for a University. When a student enters University at 18 or 19 years old, they will be there for 3 years, and it’s the challenge of the University to furnish those graduates with the ability to be contemporary. It’s a big challenge due to the fast-paced change in 4.0 and all those technologies that fall under the label. We are almost in the realm of trying to predict the future. This is key in the difference between teaching the use of a particular technology versus teaching the skills to deal with change. The skillset is about adaptability and resilience – which relates back to that ‘people’ side of things. The challenge for Universities and academics (and the students themselves) is the pace of change – which we are still coming to grips with. Even new students 10 years ago had some degree of certainty then as to what their world of work would look like upon graduating.
“If we are to go through technology media and the current literature, the whole rise of machine learning and Artificial Intelligence say 1, 2, or 3 years ago was something that prompted ‘distant horizon’ questions like ‘how will this affect my business’. Compare that to media 6 months ago where we now ask questions like ‘why aren’t you using AI?’ – we have gone from ‘future tech’ to ‘expected tech’. This pace of change across their 3 years with us is tough for our students, but this is where robustness and adaptability is so important in the process of education.”
AI and machine learning are now part of the current technology utilised by businesses. Does this have an impact on the role of people within business?
“The old fear that machines are going to take our jobs and we won’t have any work is still there in the background. People fear that technology is going to make them redundant, but then the penny drops and they realise that other opportunities are created by the changes, such as where an employee can be moved to a new role with more value. When a company chooses to support their employees to develop, upskill and take on new roles, they actually see a positive transformation very quickly along with the pace of change. It’s how you see the people in your organisation that counts. Rather than seeing them as being replaced by machines, instead where you develop them, the result is greater productivity and growth all round. These are also more sustainable practices through increased efficiency and accuracy. As a University we can offer the ability to realise this with businesses of all sizes and sectors.”