In the world of business, the buzzword „digital transformation“ is relentlessly echoing through the factory halls and busy open-plan offices. Digitisation is not only the central future topic of our time from a technological point of view, but also shakes our social and economic life in its foundations with its implications. In the public debate, this imminent corruption is hardly noticed, not least because its designation as „digital transformation“ describes the development only incompletely. Thus, in popular usage, the term is equated with digitization and thus mainly suggests the shift of the analog to the virtual world. Since this transformation has been observable for some years now, it is truly new to a few. While past digital innovations have undermined proven business models and suppressed established companies, Apple’s iTunes has turned the entire music market upside down, and YouTube and Netflix are likely to do the same with the TV and film markets. But this digitization, which has been observable for some years now, is not comparable in its effectiveness to the transformation that is about to take place, which would be more aptly described as automation. After all, the next step in technological development is no longer just a shift of analogue content into digital space. In the next phase, countless business and action processes will be automated. The attentive newspaper reader is familiar with the example of self-propelled vehicles developed by classic car manufacturers as well as various companies in the „New Economy“ and which are expected to be mass-produced in a few years‘ time. This example shows that the upheavals of digitization are only a slight breeze compared to the storm of automation. For example, Uber, a company that is currently agitating the taxi market, is relatively ineffective in view of the expected disruption when self-propelled vehicles make entire professions such as taxi, bus, airplane or train drivers completely superfluous. The upcoming digital transformation, which is to be referred to here as digital automation for the sake of informative value, will not only fundamentally change our lives in the automotive sector.
Industry 4.0 as the impending revolution
In business administration, digital automation is regarded as the fourth industrial revolution and is accordingly referred to as Industry 4.0. The focus is not primarily on self-propelled vehicles, but on so-called „smart factories“. That is to say, factory halls that are so clever that production processes are completely automated. This is made possible by linking all machines and objects relevant for production to the Internet in order to communicate with each other and to carry out (predefined) coordinated actions („Internet of Things“). Correspondingly programmed production facilities can automatically trigger repeat orders, navigate free-moving rolling stock to the desired storage locations or control the entire production process efficiently. The technology is already so advanced in this respect that it is no longer necessary to ask whether there will be fully automated factories in the future. The central question is only when they will become established in the business world.
Man against machine has become more acute
In developed industries in particular, however, the focus on value creation has been shifting increasingly to the knowledge-intensive service and IT sector for years now. Therefore, in this environment people often talk about economy 4.0 or work 4.0 in order to understand the industrial revolution of digital automation more broadly. The Internet of Things, which is the basis for ensuring that entire production processes function without human intervention, will not stop at the open-plan office. And combined with the ability to draw conclusions from the abundance of data on social behaviour patterns („big data“), the possibilities of digital automation in knowledge-intensive areas seem to be limited only by imagination. In contrast to the manufacturing industry, however, automation is still in its infancy in the service and information technology sector, which is why there are hardly any reliable statements as to what everyday working life will look like in such fields of activity. However, it is not very daring to predict that routine activities will be automated here as well. This automation will also cover highly knowledge-intensive activities as computer performance increases. While the fight between man and machine is currently still playfully staged in quiz duels, chess games or Go-Matches, it only seems to be a matter of time until even demanding cognitive work is performed faster and better by a computer. Against this backdrop, the activities of the working person will probably be limited in the future to complex situations in which he/she is superior to digital automation. The care of elderly people, the development of new product ideas or the definition of a new organisational strategy could be examples of such an assignment.
Existence-securing skill change
The extrapolation of the digital automation that has already begun indicates that pure knowledge no longer represents a sustainable competitive advantage, because on the one hand, machines control the retrieval of information faster and more accurately than the most experienced specialists and, on the other hand, such machines will be just as ubiquitous in the foreseeable future as laptops, smartphones and tablets are today. Non-automated work activities, which can achieve a competitive advantage for companies in the future, thus require elaborate decision-making skills that go beyond the cognitive aspect. However, the question of which competences are meant by this has so far only been addressed by research in the following areas
insufficiently answered. This is aggravated by the fact that, not least because of globalisation and digitisation, the competitive dynamics have increased so much that organisations have to get used to the change as a permanent state of affairs. For companies, this means that competency requirements are constantly changing, while sublime skills become relevant to their existence. As a consequence, competence management plays a central strategic role in the context of work 4.0, which decides on the continued existence of an organization. In cooperation with the scientific community, it will be easier to find out sooner rather than later how to design this competence management. Otherwise, not only organizational existences but also our entire work, if not even life content are threatened.
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