Be Combat Ready for the High-Tech Future

April 1, 2001
Gird your manufacturing forces to win tomorrow's market turf.

Be Combat Ready for the High-Tech Future

Gird your manufacturing forces to win tomorrow's market turf.

by George Weimer

What would you tell your sons or daughters if they said they wanted to go into industrial management as a career?

Study engineering?

Learn to be a salesperson?

Become an Internet nerd?

Learn Latin?

Why not prescribe military strategy and tactics? Business, particularly modern manufacturing businesses, may be run in the future as the moral equivalent of high-tech wars.

Tactics, strategy and victory or defeats are matters of both great generals and the best of troopers. How do companies put together the winning teams for the high tech industrial wars of today and tomorrow?

Or should a junior manager look to marry the boss' daughter? Or, as the case may be, her son? It's a complicated world out there, and perhaps even more so in manufacturing. Such a cynical approach might be helped with a lot of courses on modern manufacturing technology, the Internet and people skills as well.

In today's world of manufacturing company management, the questions about preparation are more difficult than ever. This is because industry, and every other modern human activity, is carried out in a world of constant and seemingly always increasing change. The changes, unlike those of a few decades ago, are not just matters of technology. Therefore, coordination and collaborative skills matter as much or even more than engineering.

Top managers in industrial companies for generations were masters or at least students of two disciplines: engineering (the product) and finance (the bucks and bills). Today's business world offers strong suggestions that there's more now to manufacturing management than the product and the prices. Knowing this is the beginning of a sensible offensive strategy in the modern manufacturing world.

Technology itself, for example, has evolved into perhaps the heaviest of all managerial burdens and its most important strategic weapon. Even as recently as two decades ago, a top manager in, say, the auto supply industry could reasonably be expected to know his product in terms of metallurgy, material, composition, design and manufacturing engineering and assembly -- at least in some general way.

Can that same CEO or chairman say the same today? Unlikely. Today's parts in terms of engines and components are so embedded with intelligence and so carefully compliant with hundreds of layers of regulations and rules that no single person can be expected to know even a small part of it in even a general way. Information Technology alone is a Ph.D. paradise. Such experts are the new strategy advisers of the high-tech manufacturing world.

Senior managers can type?

"We talk to a lot of senior managers, and more and more the CEO is intimately involved with IT," points out Jim Shepherd, senior vice president, AMR Research, Boston, Massachusetts. In fact, "Business strategy is becoming one and the same with IT strategy. The fundamental ability to do business is increasingly a matter of IT," Shepherd says.

"Today's CEOs and senior managers are quite familiar with IT. They've used computers in college," the AMR executive adds. In other words, they can type. Anyone older than 40 can remember a time when a word processor, let alone a typewriter, was never seen on a top manager's desk -- especially in manufacturing.

Today's industrial chiefs have grown up IT savvy. They are all well versed in it. In effect, the whole world of electronic gadgets, devices and systems is part of the culture we all live in today. It's analogous to not being able to use a telephone in 1970. It would have been very difficult for a president or a chairman to have climbed all the way to the top and never have called his broker, let alone the shop floor.

Whither manufacturing?

The significance of these developments in the last decade or so has led to a most confusing distinction between the New Economy and the Old Economy or the Rust Belt and the Dot-Coms. These terms are useful for television folks but not much help to people trying to keep ahead and keep up in terms of industry and business.

Perhaps the best way to decide on qualifications for manufacturing management is to try and see just where manufacturing is going in the near future.

One of manufacturing's leading experts has tried to clear this all up by noting that there's a convergence going on that is creating what might be termed the New Manufacturing within the New Economy, suggests Jerry J. Jasinowski, president, National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), Washington, D.C.

"Let me be clear about a central part of this transformation," Jasinowski noted last year. "In a very real way, manufacturing is technology. Manufacturing's main impact on our country's economic growth is through its contributions to technology. Based on the most recent data from the National Science Foundation, we can calculate that manufacturing accounts for 60 percent of all research and development performed in the United States."

Indeed, R&D expenditures for this year are expected to increase by five percent to some $277 billion, according to Battelle, Columbus, Ohio. More to the manufacturing point, the increase will largely be a matter of industrial support, Battelle adds.

Specifically, industry will increase its R&D spending by about 6.5 percent to some $190 billion in 2001. Money earmarked for R&D by government and academe combined is less than half of that: $87 billion in 2001.

Route to defeat

The point here is that manufacturing, contrary to the rather silly dissections between high- and low-tech, and Dot-Coms and Rust Belts, and so on, is that industry, as Jasinowski so aptly put it, is technology and will be even more so in the near-term future. For people considering careers in manufacturing, the point is clear enough. So don't be a dummy about technology, no matter what the conventional sound bite wisdom suggests. Ignorance of advanced technology is the shortest route to defeat.

"R&D will continue to provide the underpinning of the economy, on both the national and the international scene," explained Dr. Jules Dugs, Battelle senior researcher and co-author of a report on R&D. "And it is not just the high-visibility communications, computers, and information technologies. It is also the technology that leads to more efficient industrial processes, improved transportation and production, and use of all manner of energy resources."

Battelle also predicts that "industry will continue to emphasize various forms of partnering and collaborations, including relationships with others in the research and development worlds as well as other companies." The term collaboration has become much more that a buzzword in recent months, and suggests that industrial managers and their companies will be necessarily more cooperative in coming years. Certain changes in federal laws in the 1980s made this approach possible, but necessity in terms of competition is the real driving force behind collaboration.

Be smart, be better

Manufacturing used to be a place where one went to earn a living and not much more. Few men or women would have used terms like fulfilling or career to describe their jobs, whether they were shop floor, shop foremen or president. Their functions, from top to bottom, were matters of production and speed. Today's manufacturing managers and their "associates" don't live or work in the same world. In fact, "I don't even think we will be using the word factory any more," comments Phylis Eisen, vice president, NAM's Manufacturing Institute and director of its Center for Work Force Success.

"What we used to call a factory is really a facility full of highly skilled people," she adds. It is those highly skilled people, she continues, who hold the key to managerial success in modern manufacturing. While she admits it is a bit of a cliché, the truth of it remains, "Without your people, you are nothing."

They may be your most important troops, but today they are more and more digital troops. Those people and their managers will need to be smarter than ever in terms of technology and its application. In other words, creativity has come to the plant floor as a necessity.

Today and tomorrow, a manager, or an associate for that matter, in industry will rise or fall based upon what he or she knows, particularity in terms of science and mathematics. Knowledge has come into its own in this country.

The rule is "better, faster, cheaper," Eisen notes. That's different from just "more production." Manufacturing has become a center of creativity these days, and managers who don't recognize that won't survive long in the industrial battles of the future. "Technology is complicated and knowing how to use it is even more so," she adds. How that is accomplished is a matter, more and more today, of teamwork.

"Manufacturing today is a people business. Without the right, properly trained people, a manager doesn't have a chance," Eisen points out. She urges managers who want to keep up in terms of skills to ask about NAM's "Virtual University," which offers all kinds of courses on modern manufacturing training in collaboration with colleges and technical schools across the country.

Agreeing with that is AMR's Shepherd. "Managers in manufacturing are necessarily a different breed today. There's a great deal of emphasis on coordinating and sharing and working together."

Some aspects of modern manufacturing decision-making can't be properly handled anymore by the older cost-justification methods. New technologies, ranging from the ubiquitous computers to the Internet, allow modern industrial companies to compete in ways unimagined just 20 years ago. Managers need to be leaders, "visionaries," as Eisen puts it, to adjust to this change and take advantage of these new tools.

"A lot of the investments companies need to make in IT, for example, can't be justified in old accounting ways," explains Shepherd.

Modern weapons and morale

What all these experts and many managers in leading companies are saying is that manufacturing management is coming into its own in the world. Politicians and their wars for too long have held the news media, and the imaginations of the world's people, captive. Industry brings the good life to millions if it is led and managed by far-sighted and imaginative men and women who take it seriously and can inspire others to come into it as a career.

Manufacturing work of all kinds, including management, is the wave of the future for millions of people all over the world, but it is not the factory-oriented drudge of the past. Manufacturing is becoming the world's leading profession and calling -- so much so that some observers expect it to soon pass other fields in terms of pay and prestige.

What to tell your sons or daughters? Tell them to arm themselves with a knowledge of technology in at least a broad way and a well-developed concern for the careers of others. Tomorrow's successful manager in manufacturing will be elected to provide not only a careful approach to the bottom line, but also be able to inject and manage imagination.

You and your company may well be on the way to leadership in these areas. If you feel you are, and want to show off, you might want to try entering the Best Practices contests that NAM's Center for Workforce Success has just begun to develop. If you would like to discuss your special successes in training, and in retaining highly skilled people, in you education programs and recruiting, call the center and ask for Joe Golden at (202) 637-3101.

Meanwhile, the message is becoming more and more clear to more and more people that what the manufacturing company does is provide people with the highest standard of living possible, given the technology and the skills available. Management's job is to fight for that cause with the people it employs. As NAM's Jasinowski puts it: "It's the spirit of innovation and continuous improvement that has animated our economic success."

One final caveat, however, must be noted in terms of America's phenomenal manufacturing successes in the past decade. A great deal of credit goes to the managers and workers -- and investors -- who worked so hard and so creatively. Bravo to them, among whom are thousands of highly skilled workers in the high-tech fields that are so important. They were, in effect, "imported." We, as a nation, simply don't produce enough people with the right skills and attitudes for advanced manufacturing technician work. Is management our next import?

About the author

George Weimer is senior consultant with Watt/Fleishman-Hillard International Communications and a contributing editor to Material Handling Management. He can be reached at (216) 566-7019, or via e-mail at [email protected].