Lessons learnt so far from the Up-Skill case studies: An interview with Dr Alison Hirst from Anglia Ruskin University

Dr Alison Hirst is an Associate Professor of Organization Studies at Anglia Ruskin University. Her primary areas of research centre on organizational space and materiality and the use of ethnography as a way of researching and writing about organizations.

Industry 4.0 smart factory with robotic arm control interface

Alison is the head researcher of the Up-Skill ethnographic case studies and leads a team of researchers who are conducting fieldwork at a variety of industrial and manufacturing environments to gain greater insight into the relationship between the human workforce, skills, the implementation of emerging technologies and managerial intent.

Mike Hepworth from Up-Skill partner KNEIA sat down with Alison to find out what have been the key lessons learnt from the case studies so far and whether there have been any commonalities identified that can help guide organizations with implementing new technologies.

Mike: The Up-Skill case studies are varied, but are there any common themes that have been identified, specifically regarding the employees’ interactions and attitudes towards the integration of new technologies?

Alison: I think the common theme or the kind of learning point that comes out is that for technologies to be integrated and used effectively, the organisation needs to have a receptive and motivated workforce. So, integration will happen better if workers have been consulted and involved upstream and they've had the chance to input their expertise and their knowledge into how and what technology is implemented.

In the Up-Skill project we've got some good examples of this. One example is that there is an organisation that has an Enterprise Resource Planning system that workers were involved with as it was being introduced. As a result, they've become more like managers because they are actively using the system to plan and review what's happening at the site. They're using it to develop a competency matrix so that they know who can do what which gives them the flexibility and opportunities to change job roles when and where they need to.

Another example is that one of our organisations is very technologically oriented and driven to implement new technologies where possible. However, whenever they're considering introducing a new co-bot or another piece of technology, it gets trialled on the ground quickly to see how people react to it and identify how well it will be accepted and highlight any potential problems. So, from what we have seen so far, I think these types of practices are very beneficial to both organisations and the workforce.

Ztift employees being trained on a CNC milling machine

Counter to this, we have seen at a different site where a new sort of technology arrived out of the blue one day, completely unknown to the workforce and suddenly there was a new world, a new way of working, a new workflow that they didn't know anything about. So, you can imagine how surprised they felt. There had obviously been considerable planning going on behind the scenes about how to change the content of the work that the employees knew nothing about. There is a sense of a kind of deception there…, it doesn't enhance trust.

So, from our point of view, this is a lost opportunity because workers do know what they're doing, they care about their work, and can be of huge value to management when they are considering implementing new technologies and changing work processes. That's one thing that we've really been able to observe quite closely, and it surprised us. People who do manufacturing work quite often have a lot of pride in their work, they take great care in the appearance of the products they make and the cleanliness and appearance of their machines, both inside and out. No one might see the inside of that machine for years, and it may be inspected by a person that you would never meet, you would never know, but they have pride in it nonetheless. Perhaps it is a means of projecting yourself into the world in a positive way?

So, I think that's the common theme, consult with the workforce about things that affect their work because they care and take pride in it, and we have examples of this that span large and very small organisations of various kinds.

Mike: So, based upon what you've learnt, what would be the major piece of advice you would give to an executive and middle management regarding the implementation of new technologies?

Alison: Well, I think there are two. The first one is as above, to make sure you have a receptive and motivated workforce that you involve in the implementation of technology. The second is that given that there are risks of losing skills because of an ageing workforce retiring, especially in craft and artisan industries, it is vital for management to think ahead and start the process sooner rather than later and involve the workforce from the beginning of the process to utilise their skills and knowledge.

So, I think those would be the two major pieces of advice I would offer. I have another good practice, but it's not very technological, which is to move away from the kind of classic HR process, which is that you've got this vacancy, you identify the skill set that you want, and you go out into the labour market to look for a match between this need and a certain skill set.

Conducting a job interview as part of the hiring process

But we noticed in one organisation that they didn´t strictly follow this process, but rather, took people on with a positive orientation to work, which is more of broader concept than motivation if you will. The orientation mindset takes into account the person as a whole and understands that a person´s work requirements change through their life. So, the recruitment process focused more on flexibility, openness to training and an understanding that circumstances will change, both in the employee´s personal life and the type of work and job roles that they will have to do. It is a way of thinking a bit more broadly about the recruitment process, taking into account changes to people´s situations and needs, and also changes to the work environment, job roles and technologies. And so the HR process is grounded in the understanding that circumstances change, both personally and at work, and making hiring choices based upon this understanding.

Mike: Finally, how can qualitative and the more nuanced information gathered from ethnographic research add value to the quantitative data and inform decision making at the organisation level and policy making at EU level?

Alison: Well, I think it's because it shows how things really happen at the ground level. We can see the effects of management decisions, technology implementation, and how the interplay between skills, job roles and technology and management play out in real time on the shop floor on a day-to-day basis.

Organisations present a vision of themselves, an official version that gets presented to the world, and we look behind this and examine the countless processes that led to the version that they are presenting. A good example is when you go to a restaurant, you only see the front of house, the decor, tables setup neatly, menus, and then the food and drinks brought to your table. What you don´t see are the processes that led to all these things. Ethnographers go and look in the kitchen, we look behind the bar, in the storage rooms, we see how everything works which results in the final version that is presented to the world. And we also see how people behave, their attitudes, their job roles and position in the hierarchy, which is vital for understanding if things are working or not, and how they could be improved.


Another example of this that we are seeing in the case studies is that there is a perception that technology is displacing skilled workers, however, what we are observing is that some skills are disappearing from the workforce as the workforce ages, and quite often, the search for technological solutions by organisations is an attempt to compensate for the absence of these workers rather than a means to replace them, or to solve a specific problem that will benefit employees where there is an automated solution.

Mike: Is this specific to craft and artisanal businesses or SMEs?

Alison: No, no, you see this at major manufacturing companies also. The current principle at Ford, which is the biggest company that we're studying, is that you don't automate something unless it benefits workers. So, they will automate something if it solves a problem, excessive heavy lifting by workers or something like that, but they are not driven towards full automation, and this is something we didn´t expect.

On the other hand, we have discovered that many of the smaller artisanal firms are looking to automate where possible, and again, this is not something we expected. The reasons behind this are complex and are not purely based upon managerial intent but are also determined by socio-economic factors. You could argue that Ford has the option or greater freedom to automate or not automate as it suits them, whilst smaller firms have less options based upon their profit margins, location, access to skilled workers, purchasing power etcetera, and have to do whatever is necessary to stay afloat.

So again, the processes behind the scenes do not always fit neatly with the image of the organisation that is presented. Ethnographers are nosey parkers poking around in the background to find out what really is going on, and this type of research is vital to the Up-Skill project when it comes to making an analysis of decision making at the organisational level further down the line, and making more broader conclusions about the impacts and relationships between technology, skills, sustainability and human-centricity at an industry and societal level.

Votes 5/5 of 1.