By Patricia Hume, CEO, Canvas GFX
The global pandemic has created numerous challenges for businesses and industries worldwide. In the UK we’ve witnessed three national lockdowns so far, creating levels of uncertainty and destabilisation which one suspects will come to be seen as defining characteristics of the time.
It is important to remember, though, that problems pave the way for solutions. Within the enterprise, the challenges brought on by COVID-19 have created an opportunity for both new and existing technologies to help teams overcome the realities of distanced and distributed work.
It is entirely plausible that some of these solutions will become operational defaults, even after we return to some degree of ‘normality’ through the roll-out of vaccines. For now, however, the problems presented by enforced physical distancing are very real.
Research by employee recognition provider Achievers suggests that the pandemic has resulted in one third of British workers feeling less connected to their workplace and colleagues. Given the fundamental importance of effective collaboration in driving success for the enterprise, this is a source of genuine concern. Even without the impact of a global pandemic, collaboration between teams within the enterprise and ecosystem is a challenge to perfect, with that challenge increasing in relation to the complexity of the data and projects involved.
Keeping employees connected and collaborative, keeping them engaged, ensuring they have access to the latest data they need to be effective, and giving them the ability to quickly and accurately communicate whatever outputs they produce is an urgent priority in 2021.
Within the manufacturing industries this is especially crucial – particularly at a time when many manufacturers have made abrupt, temporary pivots to produce pandemic necessities. A new product model (or update) needs to be understood and communicated with absolute clarity by everybody downstream from the product engineers who designed it: the commercial teams responsible for bringing it to market and explaining its value onward to potential customers, the fabrication departments responsible for the manufacturing process itself, the workers responsible for installation or maintenance, and so on.
Visual communication is paramount here, as it is by far the quickest route to understanding. But it is no longer straightforward to simply show somebody something in person, to generate that magical ‘I see’ moment while standing side-by-side. Even when two people are at the same location, physical distancing is a challenge to effective co-operation.
Within these organisations, and many more across a range of verticals, a significant part of the challenge here is making essential data properly accessible to everyone who needs to use it. All too often access to product data is restricted by the format in which it exists, and the specialised software and training typically required to effectively exploit and visually communicate it.
We now hear often about the need to ‘democratise’ data – to make data available to a wide audience, with all essential safeguards and controls in place, of course. It can be easy to dismiss the buzzwords of the business world but this is a fascinating concept to me. Democracy ensures that everybody who needs and qualifies for a certain thing gets access to that thing. Democracy also gives individuals the power and the freedom to contribute to significant outcomes. Within the enterprise, and particularly the manufacturing sector, democratising data has the same effect: everybody becomes more powerful individually in driving the organisation towards desired and significant outcomes.
We work with manufacturers of all sizes and we hear every day about the challenges they face and the complexity they need to manage – both in terms of workflows and processes, and in terms of their critical data. One day, it’s a network of maintenance teams that are sent crucial visual assets on USB drives, who rely on low-resolution scanned images, who lose hours trawling through huge databases of PDFs. The next we hear about business development reps who are forever pestering engineers for new visualisations of products and assemblies. Endless screenshots zip between email accounts until the least-worst option is chosen.
Then there are executive design reviews which, not that long ago, could be dealt with simply by product engineers physically taking a laptop to a colleague’s desk and showing them products in person. That was inefficient then. Today, with physical distancing, it’s often impossible.
What these organisations need are built for purpose solutions that drive more effective visual collaboration and which can replace improvised and sub-optimal workarounds that are increasingly difficult to tolerate in a world which has had its perspective shifted by an epochal event.
You have to be doggedly optimistic to hunt for upsides to a pandemic and the human cost clearly counts for far more than anything else. But in terms of the way our vitally important enterprises communicate, in terms of how we as employees interact and collaborate, particularly when distanced from one another, then this situation may be helping us to find ways to work smarter and faster. To use a phrase in vogue on both sides of the Atlantic we could be finding ways to build back better.
COVID-19 has focused renewed attention on essential communication and collaboration projects, driving us to find new ways to connect people and ideas. And it has turned our thoughts to the ways in which we can make our businesses more resilient, flexible and efficient – protecting them as best we can from the unpredictable. Empowering teams to be more effective by giving them access to the data and technology they need to communicate and collaborate wherever they are in the moment has to be top of the list.