The latest quarterly productivity bulletin from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) tells a familiar tale, with UK labour productivity, measured by output by hour, falling 0.1% between Q1 (January to March) and Q2 (April to June). UK manufacturing performed particularly badly, seeing a 1.3% fall in productivity, compared to a rise of 0.2% in the services sector. Our news pages this month highlight some of the main causes of this persistent problem and some possible solutions. In the first category are time-consuming ‘clunky’ business processes cited in a new report by Tungsten Network (page 5); lack of investment in new technology, highlighted in surveys from SugarCRM and Xero (pages 9 and 14); and poor staff training, epitomised by the lack of basic IT skills amongst UK office workers (page 11). In the second category are new technologies like wearables and artificial intelligence (AI) that businesses across a range of industry sectors are introducing to streamline workflows, principally by removing paper from their operations. New research by ServiceNow indicates that businesses that do invest in solutions like artificial intelligence and machine learning to streamline decision-making and accuracy are six times more likely to experience revenue growth of more than 15% than companies with low levels of automation.
How the office might change as a result of these new technologies is touched upon in separate articles on robots (page 24) and speech recognition (page 32). In the former, Volker Spanier, head of robotics at Epson Europe, notes the rise of the co-bot – collaborative robots designed to work alongside humans. As he points out, greater physical co-operation between man and machine is creating new opportunities in manufacturing and service industries such as healthcare and hospitality. What this means for the office environment is less certain. ‘Meet your new colleague the co-bot’ is much more likely to be heard in a factory or field than an office, but that doesn’t mean white collar workers are immune from the coming revolution. As the research and advisory firm Information Services Group (ISG) demonstrated so clearly in the man vs. machine head-to-head at September’s inaugural ISG Automation Summit – Europe (see page 14), developments in artificial intelligence will enable computers to complete many of today’s tedious administrative processes much more efficiently than humans. Throw in the ability of speech recognition technologies to transform how we interact with machines and it is clear that a productivity revolution in offices is within reach.
James Goulding, Editor