Six Sigma Is Draining Employees’ Creativity

Andrew Smart

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“Now I have to tell you something, and I mean this in the best and most inoffensive way possible: I don’t believe in process. In fact, when I interview a potential employee and he or she says that ‘it’s all about the process,’ I see that as a bad sign … The problem is that at a lot of big companies, process becomes a substitute for thinking. You’re encouraged to behave like a little gear in a complex machine. Frankly, it allows you to keep people who aren’t that smart, who aren’t that creative.”

Elon Musk, founder of Space-X and Tesla Motors

If you have a job at any sizable company there is a good chance you’ve been forced to endure Six Sigma training, or at least some watered-down derivative. Your instructor may have reminded you, as mine did, of a newly converted religious fanatic prosely­tizing his faith. Imagine a cross between a Scientologist and a Jehovah’s Witness, tastefully attired in business casual.

According to an official account, Six Sigma is an organized and systematic method for strategic process improvement, plus new product and service development, that relies on statistical methods and the scientific method to make dramatic reductions in customer-defined defect rates.

Don’t worry about trying to understand what that even means: it turns out that not even Ultimate Lean-Master Six Sigma Black Belts know how to translate that description. Six Sigma is neither statistical nor scientific. You can quite easily get through Six Sigma training by pretending to know what it means.

So let’s just pretend.

Supposed Truth about Six Sigma

A paper on Six Sigma theory by R. G. Schroeder in the Journal of Operations Management from 2008 identifies several definitions: Six Sigma is “a high-performance, data-driven approach to analyzing the root causes of business problems and solving them.”

Also it’s a “business process that allows compa­nies to drastically improve their bottom line by designing and monitoring every business activity in ways that minimize waste and resources while increasing customer satisfaction”; also it’s “a disciplined and statistically based approach for improving product and process quality”; also it’s “a management strategy that requires culture change in the organization.”

The single most important goal of the Six Sigma is to reduce varia­tion in organizational processes by using disease vectors to spread throughout the company. These vectors are improve­ment specialists, a structured method, and performance metrics.

This is similar to what the underlying disease in epilepsy does to neurons. During a seizure, the variations in the neu­rons are reduced. Reducing variation in the brain is devastating.

Applied to an entire company, the Six Sigma process is analo­gous to an organizational epileptic seizure.

Capitalist corporations must execute a strange balancing act between two poles on a spectrum that are paradoxical. On the one hand, they must work to the shareholders’ immediate benefit—hence Six Sigma. On the other hand, they need ideas for innovative products. Both these contradictory elements are required for the elusive “competitive advantage.”

The Six Sigma process is analo­gous to an organizational epileptic seizure

The Human Brain, Variety and Creativity

The only system we know of in the universe that can be innovative is the human brain. But the brain seems to need things like freedom, long periods of idleness, positive emo­tions, low stress, randomness, noise, and a group of friends with tea in the garden to be creative. The truth is that we can’t have it both ways. Until we figure out how to give robots a “creative mode,” humans are going to be the only source of innovation for the foreseeable future.

The human brain actually seeks out and thrives on its own variation. With each new experience we have, our brain is irre­versibly changed. These changes become more profound and stable if we rest between new experiences. This allows our brain to consolidate what it has absorbed and integrate it into our own sense of self, therefore making meaning out of experience.

The process is different for each experience and different for each person. Neuroscience is discovering that a crucial part of this process is to allow the brain’s default mode network time to be active. A resting brain is necessary for this to happen.

In my experience, the one thing employees complain the most about at large organizations is all the “process.” Every internal employee survey I have seen shows that people approve of “process” the least, and in fact feel very negatively about it.  If you want a sure fire way to reduce morale, induce widespread cynicism, stop innovating, and turn people into mindless bureaucrats why not give Six Sigma or any related process improvement fad a try.

Perhaps the most mind blowing thing about these processes is that all the independent research (of which there is little) on whether or not they actually improve the bottom line is equivocal at best.

In other words, Six Sigma ruins your day, and it doesn’t even work.

Photo by Pierre

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What Gen Z’s Arrival In The Workforce Means For Recruiters

Meghan M. Biro

Generation Z’s arrival in the workforce means some changes are on the horizon for recruiters. This cohort, born roughly from the mid-90s to approximately 2010, will be entering the workforce in four Hiring Generation Z words in 3d letters on an organization chart to illustrate finding young employees for your company or businessshort years, and you can bet recruiters and employers are already paying close attention to them.

This past fall, the first group of Gen Z youth began entering university. As Boomers continue to work well past traditional retirement age, four or five years from now, we’ll have an American workplace comprised of five generations.

Marketers and researchers have been obsessed with Millennials for over a decade; they are the most studied generation in history, and at 80 million strong they are an economic force to be reckoned with. HR pros have also been focused on all things related to attracting, motivating, mentoring, and retaining Millennials and now, once Gen Z is part of the workforce, recruiters will have to shift gears and also learn to work with this new, lesser-known generation. What are the important points they’ll need to know?

Northeastern University led the way with an extensive survey on Gen Z in late 2014 that included 16- through 19-year-olds and shed some light on key traits. Here are a few points from that study that recruiters should pay special attention to:

  • In general, the Generation Z cohort tends to be comprised of self-starters who have a strong desire to be autonomous. 63% of them report that they want colleges to teach them about being an entrepreneur.
  • 42% expect to be self-employed later in life, and this percentage was higher among minorities.
  • Despite the high cost of higher education, 81% of Generation Z members surveyed believe going to college is extremely important.
  • Generation Z has a lot of anxiety around debt, not only student loan debt, and they report they are very interested in being well-educated about finances.
  • Interpersonal interaction is highly important to Gen Z; just as Millennials before them, communicating via technology, including social media, is far less valuable to them than face-to-face communication.

Of course Gen Z is still very young, and their opinions as they relate to future employment may well change. For example, reality is that only 6.6% of the American workforce is self-employed, making it likely that only a small percentage of those expecting to be self-employed will be as well. The future in that respect is uncertain, and this group has a lot of learning to do and experiences yet ahead of them. However, when it comes to recruiting them, here are some things that might be helpful.

Generation Z is constantly connected

Like Millennials, Gen Z is a cohort of digital natives; they have had technology and the many forms of communication that affords since birth. They are used to instant access to information and, like their older Gen Y counterparts, they are continually processing information. Like Millennials, they prefer to solve their own problems, and will turn to YouTube or other video platforms for tutorials and to troubleshoot before asking for help. They also place great value on the reviews of their peers.

For recruiters, that means being ready to communicate on a wide variety of platforms on a continual basis. In order to recruit the top talent, you will have to be as connected as they are. You’ll need to keep up with their preferred networks, which will likely always be changing, and you’ll need to be transparent about what you want, as this generation is just as skeptical of marketing as the previous one.

Flexible schedules will continue to grow in importance

With the growth of part-time and contract workers, Gen Z will more than likely assume the same attitude their Millennial predecessors did when it comes to career expectations; they will not expect to remain with the same company for more than a few years. Flexible schedules will be a big part of their world as they move farther away from the traditional 9-to-5 job structure as work becomes more about life and less about work, and they’ll likely take on a variety of part time roles.

This preference for flexible work schedules means that business will happen outside of traditional work hours, and recruiters’ own work hours will, therefore, have to be just as flexible as their Gen Z targets’ schedule are. Companies will also have to examine what are in many cases decades old policies on acceptable work hours and business norms as they seek to not only attract, but to hire and retain this workforce with wholly different preferences than the ones that came before them. In many instances this is already happening, but I believe we will see this continue to evolve in the coming years.

Echoing the silent generation

Unlike Millennials, Gen Z came of age during difficult economic times; older Millennials were raised in the boom years. As Alex Williams points out in his recent New York Times piece, there’s an argument to be made that Generation Z is similar in attitude to the Silent Generation, growing up in a time of recession means they are more pragmatic and skeptical than their slightly older peers.

So how will this impact their behavior and desires as job candidates? Most of them are the product of Gen X parents, and stability will likely be very important to them. They may be both hard-working and fiscally savvy.

Sparks & Honey, in their much quoted slideshare on Gen Z, puts the number of high-schooler students who felt pressured by their parents to get jobs at 55 percent. Income and earning your keep are likely to be a big motivation for GenZ. Due to the recession, they also share the experience of living in multi-generational households, which may help considerably as they navigate a workplace comprised of several generations.

We don’t have all the answers

With its youngest members not yet in double digits, Gen Z is still maturing. There is obviously still a lot that we don’t know. This generation may have the opposite experience from the Millennials before them, where the older members experienced the booming economy, with some even getting a career foothold, before the collapse in 2008. Gen Z’s younger members may get to see a resurgent economy as they make their way out of college. Those younger members are still forming their personalities and views of the world; we would be presumptuous to think we have all of the answers already.

Generational analysis is part research, but also part theory testing. What we do know is that this second generation of digital natives, with its adaption of technology and comfort with the fast-paced changing world, will leave its mark on the American workforce as it makes its way in. As a result, everything about HR will change, in a big way. I wrote a post for my Forbes column recently where I said, “To recruit in this environment is like being part wizard, part astronaut, part diplomat, part guidance counselor,” and that’s very true.

As someone who loves change, I believe there has never been a more exciting time to be immersed in both the HR and the technology space. How do you feel about what’s on the horizon as it relates to the future of work and the impending arrival of Generation Z? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Social tools are playing an increasingly important role in the workplace, especially for younger workers. Learn more: Adopting Social Software For Workforce Collaboration [Video].

The post What Gen Z’s Arrival In The Workforce Means For Recruiters appeared first on TalentCulture.

Image: Bigstock

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About Meghan M. Biro

Meghan Biro is talent management and HR tech brand strategist, analyst, digital catalyst, author and speaker. I am the founder and CEO of TalentCulture and host of the #WorkTrends live podcast and Twitter Chat. Over my career, I have worked with early-stage ventures and global brands like Microsoft, IBM and Google, helping them recruit and empower stellar talent. I have been a guest on numerous radio shows and online forums, and has been a featured speaker at global conferences. I am the co-author of The Character-Based Leader: Instigating a Revolution of Leadership One Person at a Time, and a regular contributor at Forbes, Huffington Post, Entrepreneur and several other media outlets. I also serve on advisory boards for leading HR and technology brands.

How To Find The Talent You Need To Solve Challenges That Don’t Exist Yet

Mike Ettling

Although executives, analysts, and experts regularly try to predict where business is headed, the pace of innovation continues to exceed our expectations and imagination – especially when it comes to the world of work. Not only is technology impacting how we work and interact with each other, it’s transforming what we actually do for work.People walking on office concourse --- Image by © Igor E./Image Source/Corbis

Consider this: 2 billion jobs that exist today will disappear by 2030, according to futurist Thomas Frey. 2 billion. That’s roughly 50% of all of jobs worldwide. Cathy N. Davidson, Duke University professor, backed up this prediction in her book Now You See It, noting that 65% of children entering grade school this year will assume careers that don’t yet exist.

How can you possibly plan for a future workforce in jobs we can’t today know? And how can we develop talent when we don’t what our business will need not just in a few years, but even in a few months from now?

The future of talent acquisition relies on a broad footprint enabled by technology

The dynamic of workforce mix is changing. Employees no longer fit neatly into a box, nor should they. Salaried employees. Hourly employees. Contingent employees. These categories are more fluid than ever.

As digital businesses like Uber and Airbnb have shown, the understanding of “employee” is being redefined to include people who are not employed in the traditional sense or necessarily found on the company payroll. Rather, they are customers – on the other side of the seller-buyer relationship.

This new approach does not come without risk. Once the salary-wage relationship is removed from the employer-employee equation, the degree of employee loyalty and affinity seen in the past will slowly deteriorate. This forces CHROs to adjust how to relate to their existing workforce, and as important, their future employees and the people who influence them.

To create an employer brand that is more fluid and differentiated, CHROs should consider four things:

1. Your employer brand matters whether you’re actively recruiting or not.

Your employer brand needs to be an interaction that happens consistently – whether or not you are looking for new talent to join your team at the moment. And while the brand is not the sole purview of HR, HR is in the best position to shepherd it.

2. Expand your footprint to attract the best – before they’re even in the workforce.

In our age of social media, people follow brands they admire. But here’s a secret: This also brings an opportunity for following high-performing professionals within or outside the industry as well as students of all ages who are mastering valuable skills.

As I look at my two school-aged boys, I see firsthand how their new generation – Gen Z – will create their own definition of work and career fulfillment. Pretty soon, new graduates will be less concerned about job titles and more interested in working for companies with whom they feel an affinity. And increasingly, these interactions begin long before a job search.

3. Master the science of data – no PhD required.

How many of us groan when terms like “data science” and “number crunching” get mentioned? Today’s technology is taking away the fear factor; analysing data is becoming more intuitive and delivering more valuable insights. And increasingly, the machines are doing it for us, melting processes along the way.

4. Engage before Day 1.

HR today has the tools to become less about process and more about employee engagement. Onboarding is a perfect example of how, and why it matters.

Typically, onboarding has been about providing the physical things a new employee needs to start working: security badge, laptop, desk assignment, setup of a 401k account, and payroll deductions to name a just a few. None of this generally happens until the person walks through the door on Day 1.

Now we have the ability to make onboarding a social interaction, allowing a new employee the opportunity to be engaged before they even start. HR can provide the ability for new employees to connect with their manager, along with peers who can help them better understand and navigate the organisation, and potential mentors who can help them become successful – reducing the traditional ramp up process that can take months or longer.

In today’s digital economy, it’s less about the job and more about the talent. How are you preparing?

Want more future-focuses strategies that empower your workforce? See 6 Habits Of Mind That Will Impact The Future Of Work.

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Mike Ettling

About Mike Ettling

Mike Ettling is the President of SAP SuccessFactors. He is an inspirational, visionary and highly dynamic leader with a wealth of leadership expertise, genuine business acumen, and an exemplary record driving multi-million dollar sales, marketing initiatives and transformation in a global context.

Tick Tock: Start Preparing for Resource Disruption

By Maurizio Cattaneo, Joerg Ferchow, Daniel Wellers, and Christopher Koch

Businesses share something important with lions. When a lion captures and consumes its prey, only about 10% to 20% of the prey’s energy is directly transferred into the lion’s metabolism. The rest evaporates away, mostly as heat loss, according to research done in the 1940s by ecologist Raymond Lindeman.

Today, businesses do only about as well as the big cats. When you consider the energy required to manage, power, and move products and services, less than 20% goes directly into the typical product or service—what economists call aggregate efficiency (the ratio of potential work to the actual useful work that gets embedded into a product or service at the expense of the energy lost in moving products and services through all of the steps of their value chains). Aggregate efficiency is a key factor in determining productivity.

After making steady gains during much of the 20th century, businesses’ aggregate energy efficiency peaked in the 1980s and then stalled. Japan, home of the world’s most energy-efficient economy, has been skating along at or near 20% ever since. The U.S. economy, meanwhile, topped out at about 13% aggregate efficiency in the 1990s, according to research.

Why does this matter? Jeremy Rifkin says he knows why. Rifkin is an economic and social theorist, author, consultant, and lecturer at the Wharton School’s Executive Education program who believes that economies experience major increases in growth and productivity only when big shifts occur in three integrated infrastructure segments around the same time: communications, energy, and transportation.

But it’s only a matter of time before information technology blows all three wide open, says Rifkin. He envisions a new economic infrastructure based on digital integration of communications, energy, and transportation, riding atop an Internet of Things (IoT) platform that incorporates Big Data, analytics, and artificial intelligence. This platform will disrupt the world economy and bring dramatic levels of efficiency and productivity to businesses that take advantage of it,
he says.

Some economists consider Rifkin’s ideas controversial. And his vision of a new economic platform may be problematic—at least globally. It will require massive investments and unusually high levels of government, community, and private sector cooperation, all of which seem to be at depressingly low levels these days.

However, Rifkin has some influential adherents to his philosophy. He has advised three presidents of the European Commission—Romano Prodi, José Manuel Barroso, and the current president, Jean-Claude Juncker—as well as the European Parliament and numerous European Union (EU) heads of state, including Angela Merkel, on the ushering in of what he calls “a smart, green Third Industrial Revolution.” Rifkin is also advising the leadership of the People’s Republic of China on the build out and scale up of the “Internet Plus” Third Industrial Revolution infrastructure to usher in a sustainable low-carbon economy.

The internet has already shaken up one of the three major economic sectors: communications. Today it takes little more than a cell phone, an internet connection, and social media to publish a book or music video for free—what Rifkin calls zero marginal cost. The result has been a hollowing out of once-mighty media empires in just over 10 years. Much of what remains of their business models and revenues has been converted from physical (remember CDs and video stores?) to digital.

But we haven’t hit the trifecta yet. Transportation and energy have changed little since the middle of the last century, says Rifkin. That’s when superhighways reached their saturation point across the developed world and the internal-combustion engine came close to the limits of its potential on the roads, in the air, and at sea. “We have all these killer new technology products, but they’re being plugged into the same old infrastructure, and it’s not creating enough new business opportunities,” he says.

All that may be about to undergo a big shake-up, however. The digitalization of information on the IoT at near-zero marginal cost generates Big Data that can be mined with analytics to create algorithms and apps enabling ubiquitous networking. This digital transformation is beginning to have a big impact on the energy and transportation sectors. If that trend continues, we could see a metamorphosis in the economy and society not unlike previous industrial revolutions in history. And given the pace of technology change today, the shift could happen much faster than ever before.

The speed of change is dictated by the increase in digitalization of these three main sectors; expensive physical assets and processes are partially replaced by low-cost virtual ones. The cost efficiencies brought on by digitalization drive disruption in existing business models toward zero marginal cost, as we’ve already seen in entertainment and publishing. According to research company Gartner, when an industry gets to the point where digital drives at least 20% of revenues, you reach the tipping point.

“A clear pattern has emerged,” says Peter Sondergaard, executive vice president and head of research and advisory for Gartner. “Once digital revenues for a sector hit 20% of total revenue, the digital bloodbath begins,” he told the audience at Gartner’s annual 2017 IT Symposium/ITxpo, according to The Wall Street Journal. “No matter what industry you are in, 20% will be the point of no return.”

Communications is already there, and energy and transportation are heading down that path. If they hit the magic 20% mark, the impact will be felt not just within those industries but across all industries. After all, who doesn’t rely on energy and transportation to power their value chains?

The eye of the technology disruption hurricane has moved beyond communications and is heading toward … the rest of the economy.

That’s why businesses need to factor potentially massive business model disruptions into their plans for digital transformation today if they want to remain competitive with organizations in early adopter countries like China and Germany. China, for example, is already halfway through an US$88 billion upgrade to its state electricity grid that will enable renewable energy transmission around the country—all managed and moved digitally, according to an article in The Economist magazine. And it is competing with the United States for leadership in self-driving vehicles, which will shift the transportation process and revenue streams heavily to digital, according to an article in Wired magazine.

Once China’s and Germany’s renewables and driverless infrastructures are in place, the only additional costs are management and maintenance. That could bring businesses in these countries dramatic cost savings over those that still rely on fossil fuels and nuclear energy to power their supply chains and logistics. “Once you pay the fixed costs of renewables, the marginal costs are near zero,” says Rifkin. “The sun and wind haven’t sent us invoices yet.”

In other words, zero marginal cost has become a zero-sum game.

To understand why that is, consider the major industrial revolutions in history, writes Rifkin in his books, The Zero Marginal Cost Society and The Third Industrial Revolution. The first major shift occurred in the 19th century when cheap, abundant coal provided an efficient new source of power (steam) for manufacturing and enabled the creation of a vast railway transportation network. Meanwhile, the telegraph gave the world near-instant communication over a globally connected network.

The second big change occurred at the beginning of the 20th century, when inexpensive oil began to displace coal and gave rise to a much more flexible new transportation network of cars and trucks. Telephones, radios, and televisions had a similar impact on communications.

Breaking Down the Walls Between Sectors

Now, according to Rifkin, we’re poised for the third big shift. The eye of the technology disruption hurricane has moved beyond communications and is heading toward—or as publishing and entertainment executives might warn, coming for—the rest of the economy. With its assemblage of global internet and cellular network connectivity and ever-smaller and more powerful sensors, the IoT, along with Big Data analytics and artificial intelligence, is breaking down the economic walls that have protected the energy and transportation sectors for the past 50 years.

Daimler is now among the first movers in transitioning into a digitalized mobility internet. The company has equipped nearly 400,000 of its trucks with external sensors, transforming the vehicles into mobile Big Data centers. The sensors are picking up real-time Big Data on weather conditions, traffic flows, and warehouse availability. Daimler plans to establish collaborations with thousands of companies, providing them with Big Data and analytics that can help dramatically increase their aggregate efficiency and productivity in shipping goods across their value chains. The Daimler trucks are autonomous and capable of establishing platoons of multiple trucks driving across highways.

It won’t be long before vehicles that navigate the more complex transportation infrastructures around the world begin to think for themselves. Autonomous vehicles will bring massive economic disruption to transportation and logistics thanks to new aggregate efficiencies. Without the cost of having a human at the wheel, autonomous cars could achieve a shared cost per mile below that of owned vehicles by as early as 2030, according to research from financial services company Morgan Stanley.

The transition is getting a push from governments pledging to give up their addiction to cars powered by combustion engines. Great Britain, France, India, and Norway are seeking to go all electric as early as 2025 and by 2040 at the latest.

The Final Piece of the Transition

Considering that automobiles account for 47% of petroleum consumption in the United States alone—more than twice the amount used for generators and heating for homes and businesses, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration—Rifkin argues that the shift to autonomous electric vehicles could provide the momentum needed to upend the final pillar of the economic platform: energy. Though energy has gone through three major disruptions over the past 150 years, from coal to oil to natural gas—each causing massive teardowns and rebuilds of infrastructure—the underlying economic model has remained constant: highly concentrated and easily accessible fossil fuels and highly centralized, vertically integrated, and enormous (and enormously powerful) energy and utility companies.

Now, according to Rifkin, the “Third Industrial Revolution Internet of Things infrastructure” is on course to disrupt all of it. It’s neither centralized nor vertically integrated; instead, it’s distributed and networked. And that fits perfectly with the commercial evolution of two energy sources that, until the efficiencies of the IoT came along, made no sense for large-scale energy production: the sun and the wind.

But the IoT gives power utilities the means to harness these batches together and to account for variable energy flows. Sensors on solar panels and wind turbines, along with intelligent meters and a smart grid based on the internet, manage a new, two-way flow of energy to and from the grid.

Today, fossil fuel–based power plants need to kick in extra energy if insufficient energy is collected from the sun and wind. But industrial-strength batteries and hydrogen fuel cells are beginning to take their place by storing large reservoirs of reserve power for rainy or windless days. In addition, electric vehicles will be able to send some of their stored energy to the digitalized energy internet during peak use. Demand for ever-more efficient cell phone and vehicle batteries is helping push the evolution of batteries along, but batteries will need to get a lot better if renewables are to completely replace fossil fuel energy generation.

Meanwhile, silicon-based solar cells have not yet approached their limits of efficiency. They have their own version of computing’s Moore’s Law called Swanson’s Law. According to data from research company Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF), Swanson’s Law means that for each doubling of global solar panel manufacturing capacity, the price falls by 28%, from $76 per watt in 1977 to $0.41 in 2016. (Wind power is on a similar plunging exponential cost curve, according to data from the U.S. Department of Energy.)

Thanks to the plummeting solar price, by 2028, the cost of building and operating new sun-based generation capacity will drop below the cost of running existing fossil power plants, according to BNEF. “One of the surprising things in this year’s forecast,” says Seb Henbest, lead author of BNEF’s annual long-term forecast, the New Energy Outlook, “is that the crossover points in the economics of new and old technologies are happening much sooner than we thought last year … and those were all happening a bit sooner than we thought the year before. There’s this sense that it’s not some distant risk or distant opportunity. A lot of these realities are rushing toward us.”

The conclusion, he says, is irrefutable. “We can see the data and when we map that forward with conservative assumptions, these technologies just get cheaper than everything else.”

The smart money, then—72% of total new power generation capacity investment worldwide by 2040—will go to renewable energy, according to BNEF. The firm’s research also suggests that there’s more room in Swanson’s Law along the way, with solar prices expected to drop another 66% by 2040.

Another factor could push the economic shift to renewables even faster. Just as computers transitioned from being strictly corporate infrastructure to becoming consumer products with the invention of the PC in the 1980s, ultimately causing a dramatic increase in corporate IT investments, energy generation has also made the transition to the consumer side.

Thanks to future tech media star Elon Musk, consumers can go to his Tesla Energy company website and order tempered glass solar panels that look like chic, designer versions of old-fashioned roof shingles. Models that look like slate or a curved, terracotta-colored, ceramic-style glass that will make roofs look like those of Tuscan country villas, are promised soon. Consumers can also buy a sleek-looking battery called a Powerwall to store energy from the roof.

The combination of solar panels, batteries, and smart meters transforms homeowners from passive consumers of energy into active producers and traders who can choose to take energy from the grid during off-peak hours, when some utilities offer discounts, and sell energy back to the grid during periods when prices are higher. And new blockchain applications promise to accelerate the shift to an energy market that is laterally integrated rather than vertically integrated as it is now. Consumers like their newfound sense of control, according to Henbest. “Energy’s never been an interesting consumer decision before and suddenly it is,” he says.

As the price of solar equipment continues to drop, homes, offices, and factories will become like nodes on a computer network. And if promising new solar cell technologies, such as organic polymers, small molecules, and inorganic compounds, supplant silicon, which is not nearly as efficient with sunlight as it is with ones and zeroes, solar receivers could become embedded into windows and building compounds. Solar production could move off the roof and become integrated into the external facades of homes and office buildings, making nearly every edifice in town a node.

The big question, of course, is how quickly those nodes will become linked together—if, say doubters, they become linked at all. As we learned from Metcalfe’s Law, the value of a network is proportional to its number of connected users.

The Will Determines the Way

Right now, the network is limited. Wind and solar account for just 5% of global energy production today, according to Bloomberg.

But, says Rifkin, technology exists that could enable the network to grow exponentially. We are seeing the beginnings of a digital energy network, which uses a combination of the IoT, Big Data, analytics, and artificial intelligence to manage distributed energy sources, such as solar and wind power from homes and businesses.

As nodes on this network, consumers and businesses could take a more active role in energy production, management, and efficiency, according to Rifkin. Utilities, in turn, could transition from simply transmitting power and maintaining power plants and lines to managing the flow to and from many different energy nodes; selling and maintaining smart home energy management products; and monitoring and maintaining solar panels and wind turbines. By analyzing energy use in the network, utilities could create algorithms that automatically smooth the flow of renewables. Consumers and businesses, meanwhile, would not have to worry about connecting their wind and solar assets to the grid and keeping them up and running; utilities could take on those tasks more efficiently.

Already in Germany, two utility companies, E.ON and RWE, have each split their businesses into legacy fossil and nuclear fuel companies and new services companies based on distributed generation from renewables, new technologies, and digitalization.

The reason is simple: it’s about survival. As fossil fuel generation winds down, the utilities need a new business model to make up for lost revenue. Due to Germany’s population density, “the utilities realize that they won’t ever have access to enough land to scale renewables themselves,” says Rifkin. “So they are starting service companies to link together all the different communities that are building solar and wind and are managing energy flows for them and for their customers, doing their analytics, and managing their Big Data. That’s how they will make more money while selling less energy in the future.”

The digital energy internet is already starting out in pockets and at different levels of intensity around the world, depending on a combination of citizen support, utility company investments, governmental power, and economic incentives.

China and some countries within the EU, such as Germany and France, are the most likely leaders in the transition toward a renewable, energy-based infrastructure because they have been able to align the government and private sectors in long-term energy planning. In the EU for example, wind has already overtaken coal as the second largest form of power capacity behind natural gas, according to an article in The Guardian newspaper. Indeed, Rifkin has been working with China, the EU, and governments, communities, and utilities in Northern France, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg to begin building these new internets.

Hauts-de-France, a region that borders the English Channel and Belgium and has one of the highest poverty rates in France, enlisted Rifkin to develop a plan to lift it out of its downward spiral of shuttered factories and abandoned coal mines. In collaboration with a diverse group of CEOs, politicians, teachers, scientists, and others, it developed Rev3, a plan to put people to work building a renewable energy network, according to an article in Vice.

Today, more than 1,000 Rev3 projects are underway, encompassing everything from residential windmills made from local linen to a fully electric car–sharing system. Rev3 has received financial support from the European Investment Bank and a handful of private investment funds, and startups have benefited from crowdfunding mechanisms sponsored by Rev3. Today, 90% of new energy in the region is renewable and 1,500 new jobs have been created in the wind energy sector alone.

Meanwhile, thanks in part to generous government financial support, Germany is already producing 35% of its energy from renewables, according to an article in The Independent, and there is near unanimous citizen support (95%, according to a recent government poll) for its expansion.

If renewables are to move forward …, it must come from the ability to make green, not act green.

If renewable energy is to move forward in other areas of the world that don’t enjoy such strong economic and political support, however, it must come from the ability to make green, not act green.

Not everyone agrees that renewables will produce cost savings sufficient to cause widespread cost disruption anytime soon. A recent forecast by the U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts that in 2040, oil, natural gas, and coal will still be the planet’s major electricity producers, powering 77% of worldwide production, while renewables such as wind, solar, and biofuels will account for just 15%.

Skeptics also say that renewables’ complex management needs, combined with the need to store reserve power, will make them less economical than fossil fuels through at least 2035. “All advanced economies demand full-time electricity,” Benjamin Sporton, chief executive officer of the World Coal Association told Bloomberg. “Wind and solar can only generate part-time, intermittent electricity. While some renewable technologies have achieved significant cost reductions in recent years, it’s important to look at total system costs.”

On the other hand, there are many areas of the world where distributed, decentralized, renewable power generation already makes more sense than a centralized fossil fuel–powered grid. More than 20% of Indians in far flung areas of the country have no access to power today, according to an article in The Guardian. Locally owned and managed solar and wind farms are the most economical way forward. The same is true in other developing countries, such as Afghanistan, where rugged terrain, war, and tribal territorialism make a centralized grid an easy target, and mountainous Costa Rica, where strong winds and rivers have pushed the country to near 100% renewable energy, according to The Guardian.

The Light and the Darknet

Even if all the different IoT-enabled economic platforms become financially advantageous, there is another concern that could disrupt progress and potentially cause widespread disaster once the new platforms are up and running: hacking. Poorly secured IoT sensors have allowed hackers to take over everything from Wi-Fi enabled Barbie dolls to Jeep Cherokees, according to an article in Wired magazine.

Humans may be lousy drivers, but at least we can’t be hacked (yet). And while the grid may be prone to outages, it is tightly controlled, has few access points for hackers, and is physically separated from the Wild West of the internet.

If our transportation and energy networks join the fray, however, every sensor, from those in the steering system on vehicles to grid-connected toasters, becomes as vulnerable as a credit card number. Fake news and election hacking are bad enough, but what about fake drivers or fake energy? Now we’re talking dangerous disruptions and putting millions of people in harm’s way.

The only answer, according to Rifkin, is for businesses and governments to start taking the hacking threat much more seriously than they do today and to begin pouring money into research and technologies for making the internet less vulnerable. That means establishing “a fully distributed, redundant, and resilient digital infrastructure less vulnerable to the kind of disruptions experienced by Second Industrial Revolution–centralized communication systems and power grids that are increasingly subject to climate change, disasters, cybercrime, and cyberterrorism,” he says. “The ability of neighborhoods and communities to go off centralized grids during crises and re-aggregate in locally decentralized networks is the key to advancing societal security in the digital era,” he adds.

Start Looking Ahead

Until today, digital transformation has come mainly through the networking and communications efficiencies made possible by the internet. Airbnb thrives because web communications make it possible to create virtual trust markets that allow people to feel safe about swapping their most private spaces with one another.

But now these same efficiencies are coming to two other areas that have never been considered core to business strategy. That’s why businesses need to begin managing energy and transportation as key elements of their digital transformation portfolios.

Microsoft, for example, formed a senior energy team to develop an energy strategy to mitigate risk from fluctuating energy prices and increasing demands from customers to reduce carbon emissions, according to an article in Harvard Business Review. “Energy has become a C-suite issue,” Rob Bernard, Microsoft’s top environmental and sustainability executive told the magazine. “The CFO and president are now actively involved in our energy road map.”

As Daimler’s experience shows, driverless vehicles will push autonomous transportation and automated logistics up the strategic agenda within the next few years. Boston Consulting Group predicts that the driverless vehicle market will hit $42 billion by 2025. If that happens, it could have a lateral impact across many industries, from insurance to healthcare to the military.

Businesses must start planning now. “There’s always a period when businesses have to live in the new and the old worlds at the same time,” says Rifkin. “So businesses need to be considering new business models and structures now while continuing to operate their existing models.”

He worries that many businesses will be left behind if their communications, energy, and transportation infrastructures don’t evolve. Companies that still rely on fossil fuels for powering traditional transportation and logistics could be at a major competitive disadvantage to those that have moved to the new, IoT-based energy and transportation infrastructures.

Germany, for example, has set a target of 80% renewables for gross power consumption by 2050, according to The Independent. If the cost advantages of renewables bear out, German businesses, which are already the world’s third-largest exporters behind China and the United States, could have a major competitive advantage.

“How would a second industrial revolution society or country compete with one that has energy at zero marginal cost and driverless vehicles?” asks Rifkin. “It can’t be done.” D!


About the Authors

Maurizio Cattaneo is Director, Delivery Execution, Energy and Natural Resources, at SAP.

Joerg Ferchow is Senior Utilities Expert and Design Thinking Coach, Digital Transformation, at SAP.

Daniel Wellers is Digital Futures Lead, Global Marketing, at SAP.

Christopher Koch is Editorial Director, SAP Center for Business Insight, at SAP.


Read more thought provoking articles in the latest issue of the Digitalist Magazine, Executive Quarterly.

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No Longer Soft Skills: Five Crucial Workplace Skills Everyone Should Learn

Carmen O'Shea

My child’s elementary school focuses on skills they believe support children in becoming changemakers. Through use of an integrated, project-based curriculum, they explicitly teach and assess “learner values” such as iteration, risk, failure, collaboration, and perspective. Their philosophy is that these attributes long considered “soft skills” have become the crucial educational priorities for this generation.

Why do they believe this? Much knowledge is now easily accessed and readily queried, such that the acquisition of specific content or know-how is far less important than how to apply that content in different situations and how to interact with others in the pursuit of goals. This holds true in the workplace as well as the academic environment. When I think about how I operate in my job at a large technology company, it’s not really what I know but what I do with what I know, and whom I engage to get things accomplished.

Watching the school teach these skills just as they do math or language has made me stop and consider what they look like for an employee. I wanted to share my thoughts on five qualities beyond relevant academic skills or professional experience that are just as important (if not more so) in predicting top work performance. These are more qualitative skills that managers should hire for, employees should develop, and organizations should optimize for.

  • Empathythe ability to see and integrate multiple perspectives and to understand the impact of how others think. Empathy can also mean advocating and showing empathy for oneself and for others. Empathy is assuming a good intention even when someone has said or done something we dislike – to stop and pause, attempt to understand, and respond compassionately in a difficult workplace situation. Empathy also extends to intuiting beyond just the professional environment to more of a personal level to truly understand what drives a colleague or employee.
  • Resiliencethe ability to take risks even when you know you may fail and then to bounce back, sometimes repeatedly, from failure. Inherent in resilience is the idea of iteration – that it is often essential to try things multiple times, in multiple ways, from multiple angles, before achieving a desired outcome. Resilience is receiving difficult yet constructive feedback from a manager or peer and resolving to act positively on it instead of wallowing or harboring a grudge. Resilience is maintaining a sense of optimism even in a down quarter at work.
  • Creativitythe ability to think differently or expansively and to approach a problem from multiple angles. Sometimes it’s called “thinking outside the box.” Creativity often includes inquiry, the act of questioning and satisfying one’s curiosity about particular topics. Torrance defined it along several parameters – number of ideas generated, number of categories of ideas, originality of ideas, and how detailed each idea is elaborated. We see it in action during brainstorming phases of projects, but it’s also possible to apply creativity on a continual basis, by pushing colleagues to expand on their thoughts, by not being satisfied with a less than stellar answer, by taking time to understand how multiple approaches to an issue could be combined, or by simply trying something new in a familiar situation.
  • Collaborationthe ability to interact and work productively with others, in all size groups. Effective collaboration requires empathy, especially when collaborators have different backgrounds, styles, or thought processes. Collaboration also requires exemplary communication skills, both oral and written, as well as reflective listening. So much of our tasks on the job require collaboration with others, whether to inform, persuade, learn, or engage, and these interactions form the bedrock for innovation. It’s tough to innovate without collaborating.
  • Flexibilitythe ability to adapt or change course if that is what the situation demands. Flexibility includes letting go of one’s idea in the interest of attaining a goal more quickly. It can also include development a comfort level with uncertainty or ambiguity, especially in times of change. Flexibility is a willingness to absorb feedback objectively and course correct as needed without personalizing the information or demonizing the provider of it. Expounding on another’s idea (not our own) in a brainstorming session demonstrates flexibility, as does remaining calm while an org change takes effect and roles are temporarily unclear.

When employees exhibit these qualities, they are better able to understand their purpose at work and to unleash their passions in the pursuit of that purpose. When teams exhibit these qualities, achievement and employee engagement are higher.  I wager that retention and innovation will improve as well. It’s heartening that as a society we’re beginning to consider how to best prepare our children educationally for the kind of work environments they will encounter after they finish their academic journey.

Do you also see these qualities as valuable in assessing employee fit? How can managers and organizations better identify, train and reward employees for living these qualities?

For more on this topic, see Your Business Needs People With Skills, Not Just Qualifications.

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Carmen O'Shea

About Carmen O'Shea

Carmen O’Shea is the Senior Vice President of HR Change & Engagement at SAP. She leads a global team supporting major transformation initiatives across the company, focused on change management, employee engagement, and creative marketing and interaction. You can follow Carmen on Twitter.