Considering IoT adoption for productivity gains? You need to get the skills base right

Posted on 17 Jan 2020 by The Manufacturer

Facing a skills shortage, manufacturing businesses need to devise a strategy to ensure they are sourcing the right people to fulfil their IoT aspirations, says Sensor City’s Joanne Phoenix

Manufacturing is undergoing a significant shift, and it has never been more important for the sector to embrace change in order to stay competitive.

Large manufacturers are leveraging the capabilities of the Internet of Things (IoT) to utilise real-time data to monitor the status of key equipment and products, and to bring productivity gains to their industries. These approaches are making their way into the SME manufacturing community too.

Turn on the industrial Internet of Things IoT Adoption

The IoT is fast revolutionising the sector. However, for many SME organisations investing in IoT, having the right skills in place is a serious concern. In fact, not having the right personnel in place could put the brakes on many IoT projects before they’ve even got off the ground.

According to the 2019 Microsoft IoT Signals report, 47% of businesses don’t have enough skilled workers to implement effective IoT roll outs, while a quarter cite complexity and technical challenges as a barrier to furthering their organisation’s IoT adoption.

Why the fundamental nature of IoT presents a skills challenge for growing businesses

One of the biggest barriers to IoT adoption is the inherent complexity of solutions. The roll-out of an IoT infrastructure requires a multi-disciplinary approach, drawing on skills in data and business intelligence, UX design, software, hardware, information security, networks, and mobile development, among other things.

What’s more, for many organisations, there’s the requirement for IoT to coexist with legacy systems, meaning that employees need to have a wide range of skills and familiarity with different systems in order to get the most out of IoT and bridge the knowledge gap between new and older technologies.

While giants like Rolls Royce and Unilever are adopting IoT solutions within their businesses, the understanding and adoption of IoT among SMEs is lagging behind.

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In my experience, one of the main challenges is primarily a shortage of critical IoT skills. With IoT demanding multiple technical skills, manufacturers often don’t have enough to draw on from their existing talent pools.

IoT skills exist, but there is work to be done

Businesses will need to pool talent from across their business and unify them under a common goal. This can be challenging – IT and Operations departments, for example, often operate independently from one another and speak very different languages, but both are necessary for successful implementation of IoT.

To do this, both will either need to be upskilled in each other’s areas of responsibility/expertise, or someone with the right skillset will need to bridge the gap between them.

Very often, IoT technologies will need to be retrofitted alongside legacy systems, and so it may be best for manufacturing business to look to upskilling their current staff, drawing on their existing knowledge.

This is obviously a more cost-effective solution than recruitment and will prove beneficial in the long-term. However, it’s key to note that Capita’s latest research suggests that there is significant work to be done to upskill for IoT adoption.

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A substantial number of businesses report a need for improvement in some of the most critical skills for IoT, such as IT security, data management, networking and data analytics.

To illustrate this, even though device management is considered a critical skill by the highest number of businesses (55%), 61% of those companies say this skill needs to be improved within their business.

Some manufacturers using legacy systems may struggle to find the right skills internally, forcing them to turn to recruitment. This may prove equally as challenging – the 2019 Electech Roadmap Report by InnovateUK, revealed that there is a lack of graduates in the field.

According to the report, only 3,330 UK students enrolled on first degrees in electronic and electrical engineering in 2017 – less than half the number enrolling on mechanical engineering degrees.

With Electech being the driving force behind IoT adoption, could these skills be difficult to find? And if so, what can businesses do about it?

How to plan your IoT skills strategy to ensure you have the right skills for your business

It’s essential to create a plan to ensure your manufacturing business has the right skills, at the right time, for your IoT project. This may arguably be an even bigger challenge for manufacturing, which is by and large a more traditional industry.

However, having a workforce with the right skills is critical to having a successful IoT infrastructure.

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Below are a number of considerations which manufacturers need to take regarding skills:

Conduct a skills audit and create an upskilling plan

To decide whether upskilling or recruitment is the right path for your business, I’d recommend conducting a skills audit to understand where there are skills gaps within the business and whether this can be resolved through further training or whether you will need to hire additional support.

When considering upskilling, once you know where the skill gap is, identify whether additional training and upskilling could bridge that gap, and whether members of your current workforce are capable of managing IoT systems on an ongoing basis – or indeed have a keen interest to do so. Thankfully, many solutions are built with usability in mind at the data visualisation stage.

Assess the recruitment need

As many business leaders will know, it’s often more cost effective to retrain staff than to recruit new ones. Carefully weighing up what skills are needed and by when will have a large bearing on whether a recruitment strategy must be developed for hiring anew, and what it looks like.

If there are additional skills that need to be sourced through recruiting, identifying what these are is crucial for effective recruitment. You will need to develop a recruitment strategy; it may be that you only need to hire new talent in the short term in key areas in order to implement a successful IoT roll out.

Looking more long term, the existing workforce may be retrained to carry out operations, analysis, and monitoring once implementation has been completed. Consider whether this is something your short-term or interim recruits will need to be able to do.

Consider outsourcing

Outsourcing your skills will allow you to have more capacity and specialist skills on hand for a fraction of the cost. This will also allow you to get to market faster, which is a particular benefit in highly competitive global markets.

As with recruitment, this may be a consideration for initial roll out to ensure you have the backing of knowledgeable and experienced staff to give your project the best start.

Academic partnerships

Universities are a key source of information as they are often actively involved in current research. This also makes them a great source for your recruitment needs via internships, placement years, or graduate schemes.

You may also want to consider a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP), a government-backed programme aimed at improving business’ competitiveness and productivity by partnering them with an academic or research organisation to recruit a qualified graduate.

One front door

Knowing which route to take to address potential skills gaps can seem like an overwhelming task, but Innovation Hubs and University Enterprise Zones can act as the initial gateway.

Using them as your first point of call will help make the process more streamlined and easier to digest. They also often have strong links with university partners, enabling them to facilitate access to their skills pipeline and academic expertise.

Joanne Phoenix is interim executive director of Sensor City, a global hub for the development of sensor and IoT technologies.

A joint venture between the two main Liverpudlian universities, the University of Liverpool, and Liverpool John Moores, the centre is at the forefront of Liverpool City region’s LCR4.0 programme that aims to make Liverpool a major centre of Industry 4.0 technologies.

*Images courtesy of Depositphotos