COVID-19 is forcing the worlds of business and education to embrace many of the tools that will drive the fourth industrial revolution, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK
When the new Springbok rugby head coach, Jacques Nienaber, recently addressed a webinar – an online seminar – on the technology secrets of the Boks, he probably did not realise he was providing an example of how the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) was about to be given a boost by the spread of COVID-19.
The technologies underlying 4IR include cloud computing, artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, digital collaboration, and virtual workspaces. However, most businesses and educational institutions have avoided it until now – or at least ignored it – as they believed the old ways still worked best.
That perception was destroyed in a few weeks in February and March, as many countries went into social and business lockdown, and South African businesses went into crisis mode as they grappled with keeping workers safe from the coronavirus, or COVID-19.
As business events around the world, from major conferences to small product launches, were cancelled, organisations scrambled for alternative ways to go to market. Schools and universities moved en masse to online teaching – but remained at a loss in dealing with classed requiring physical participation.
It was ironic, then, that rugby was the basis of one of the country’s first webinars of the coronavirus era – even though it was never intended to replace a physical event. Nienaber was speaking at the first TechByte webinar hosted by Springbok sponsor Dell Technologies, which had been planning the series well before the virus became a pandemic.
The core point of the event: technologies like those used to present the webinar were at the heart of the new world of work made possible by 4IR. It represented opportunities for businesses, sports bodies and educational institutions.
According to Doug Woolley, general manager of Dell Technologies South Africa, the company was helping the South African Rugby Union (SARU) modernise its operations through innovative storage and retrieval of match and training videos, and information flow to players. This enabled the Boks to become both faster and smarter by adopting new learning and sharing techniques.
It is exactly these techniques that will enable organisations to survive the coronavirus pandemic.
Aside from normal precautionary rules, like social distancing, banning business travel and curtailing face-to-face meetings, organisations are embracing tools that, until recently, were confined almost entirely to information technology workers and companies. The concept of “remote working” has moved from being a grudge allowance for a very limited proportion of employees to a matter of business survival.
Managers who once lived or died by how many bums they could see on seats in the office are learning to oversee remote workers and manage the digital tools that manage their time. Suddenly, names like Teams and Webex are tripping off the tongues of executives who, three months ago, came out in a rash when someone mentioned “digitalisation”.
As much as artificial intelligence, robots and the likes of 3D printing are touted as the leading edge of 4IR, it is the relatively simple process of taking an organisation’s processes digital that will drive the revolution. And the benefits of remote working will be the most visible outcome of that process.
The most common platforms and applications being used for remote working include:
Microsoft Teams: a “unified communication and collaboration platform” that hosts video meetings and presentations, file sharing and storage, document collaboration, and “persistent chat” – meaning an online text conversation becomes an ongoing record of communication. It includes Skype for Business, so those familiar with Skype will not have a steep learning curve.
Citrix Workspace: a digital workspace software platform that allows multiple users to remotely access and operate windows desktops via PCs, tablets, and other devices. It means workers don’t have to drag their workplace computers home, but can access their work desktop as if they are at the office. It avoids the need to license work software for home use, and also includes Skype for Business.
Amazon WorkSpaces: one of the leaders in an emerging field known as Desktop-as-a-Service (DaaS). It helps eliminate complexity in managing hardware, operating system versions and patches, and virtual desktops.
Slack: a group instant messaging platform for organisations. Originally designed to replace email as the main form of communicating and sharing inside a company, it allows communications to be shared and organised by channels for group discussions. Private messages are still allowed for sharing information and files.
TeamViewer: best known for remote-control of computers, it is a software application that is also used for desktop sharing, online meetings, web conferencing and file transfer.
Trello: helps keep track of workflow, tasks and collaboration via a list-making and tracking board system. It’s biggest plus: preventing double work. As remote working takes off, organisations will often wrestle with different people repeating the same job unnecessarily.
It is clear that the coronavirus crisis will have at least one positive outcome. It will provide a dramatic, global and unavoidable case study of the fourth industrial revolution in action.
We will quickly discover that the 4IR is not about artificial intelligence and robots taking our jobs, but about the digital enablement of much of the human workforce.
Founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee