In a post published at the end of 2020, I highlighted how essential FLWs, Frontline Workers, are in the global economy.
Today, I analyze the profound differences between the dominant digital solutions, aimed primarily at Office Workers, and those needed by FLWs.
In this post, I don’t address the topic of uses serving external customers; my analysis focuses on digital solutions for internal customers.
Managers and CIOs must set a new priority for the next 5 years: to meet the real digital expectations of FLWs.
To do this, they need to “forget” a lot of their current certainties about what they think are good digital practices.
The ambitious goal of this post is to serve as a reference for all companies that decide to put quality digital solutions at the service of their FLWs.
Its length is the price to pay for presenting serious and sustainable answers.
The FLW, Frontline Workers
(Reminder of the essential points developed in the post mentioned above)
FLWs are about 2,700 million in the world and represent 80% of the workforce, compared to 20% for Office Workers. They are also called “Deskless”.
FLWs spend most of their time on the field, in a factory, a field, a delivery truck, a warehouse, a restaurant, a store, a construction site…
Their core business is never digital. All FLWs need digital help, but it’s always in support of their core business.
Office Worker and FLW: Key Differences
For the first 50 years of IT, companies and IT teams focused on meeting the expectations of Office Workers. When it came to equipping FLWs, they were given access to the same applications as Office Workers.
This chart outlines the key differences that need to be addressed to achieve a successful digital transformation for FLWs.
Their numbers: FLWs outnumber Office Workers 5 to 1. This is a global average and situations vary by country or industry.
In many African countries, FLW farmers can represent up to 60% of the active population.
Conversely, in a French bank, more than 95% of employees are Office Workers.
IT budgets: in a study for the year 2020 cited in my previous post on FLWs, the Gartner Group estimates that 80% of IT spending was dedicated to Office Workers and only 20% to FLWs.
On a per-employee basis, these numbers are even more startling: on average, companies spend 16 times less on IT for an FLW than for an Office Worker!
Access tools: the majority of IT applications were developed for terminals and then PCs. The keyboard, screen and mouse are commonplace tools for all Office Workers.
For FLWs, the smartphone has become the most common access tool to IT applications. It is sometimes replaced by a tablet, but almost never by a PC.
Interfaces: Office Workers work primarily with text and numbers, available on their PC keyboards. The apps made available to FLWs are mostly copied from those intended for Office Workers and try to impose these same keyboard interfaces. In order to meet the real expectations of FLWs, digital uses will have to change paradigm and privilege image interfaces, which are more natural and more efficient for field use.
Existing digital solutions for FLWs
In 2020, there are many apps for FLWs, often of high quality, which meet real needs.
For the most part, these apps are not a “departure” from those available for Office Workers. They digitize existing processes, based on historical paper formats.
Construction site monitoring, management of field workers’ schedules, measurement of stock levels in supermarket shelves… these processes have been improved by the use of tablets or smartphones, but without rethinking them in depth. Sometimes the image will be used, but as an attachment, as a confirmation or justification element. The image will not be at the heart of the process.
These are specialized solutions, which meet the expectations of a business.
The French solution Praxedo is a good example: this SaaS offer helps companies to manage their intervention teams, and it does so very well.
Another example is MaintainX, a startup that recently raised $50M to accelerate its growth in industrial maintenance workflow management.
Leverage existing IT solutions
This simple diagram aims to summarize the evolution of enterprise IT over the last 60 years.
Why choose 1960 as the starting year? There were computers before.
1960 was the year of the first universal business computer, the IBM 360, which quickly became the dominant solution in companies. In 2021, more than 5,000 large companies around the world are still using IBM’s Mainframe Z, the successor to the 360.
– The red curve represents the exponential evolution of the power of IT solutions, infrastructures and uses.
– The blue curve shows the evolution of Office Worker expectations. It took a long time, more than 50 years, before IT solutions could meet all the expectations of Office Workers. Since 2015, the supply side has been ahead of those expectations, and the gap between the two will grow further by 2030.
– The curve in green shows the evolution of FLW expectations. The great forgotten of the Digital Transformation, companies have ignored the expectations of FLWs, even though they were less complex than those of Office Workers!
Rather than complaining about this situation, we need to think about tomorrow, and the digital weather is looking good for FLWs. In 2021, the immediate potentials of the available solutions are far superior to the current answers offered to FLWs. It is possible, quickly, to catch up and provide FLWs with quality answers to all their expectations. I hope that in 2030 we will have reached the same situation as for Office Workers: digital technology will have met most of the demands of all the FLWs in the world.
Compared to Office Workers, FLW expectations are:
● Simple: digital is not their core business, but an assistance to their jobs. The simpler the solutions offered, the happier FLWs will be!
● Specialized: the forklift operator in a warehouse, the person checking the quality of finished products, the farmer analyzing a sick plant… all these activities require highly specialized digital solutions, adapted to each of these jobs.
● Specific: instead of building ERP for FLW, companies have to develop dozens, hundreds of small specific applications to stick to the real needs of FLW.
I would have liked to use the term S3, Simple, Specialized and Specific applications, but it is already used by AWS for its S3 storage solution: Simple Storage Service.
So in the rest of this text I will use the term FLW-S3.
There is a second reason to be optimistic when an enterprise is looking to bring up to date its Information System for FLWs. It can reuse much of the investment already made for Office Workers and put it to work for FLWs.
The technologies available in 2021, such as the Cloud and APIs, will enable new apps for FLWs to be connected to existing solutions, and first and foremost to the data they produce.
My diagnosis, in a nutshell: companies have realized the importance of FLWs, understand what the differences are between FLW digital solutions and Office Worker ones, and can leverage existing IS to move swiftly.
What are the next steps?
The BISD model, applied to FLWs
When I came up with the B I S, Business, Infrastructure, Support model in 2015, modified in 2019 to B I S D by adding the Data dimension, I was addressing Office Workers, who were still the focus of Information Systems.
Can this B I S D model also be used for FLW? The answer is: yes!
Let’s take the four elements, one by one.
I – Infrastructure.
Public Cloud solutions are also essential for FLW; their level of maturity in 2021 is such that there are no credible alternatives.
S – Support uses.
Support functions for Office Workers are not adapted to FLW expectations. Traditional office tools, business, human resources or finance support functions are not part of the SaaS tools that FLWs need.
It is necessary to imagine these new universal support functions. I propose to call them “Frontic” solutions. They are presented in the rest of this post.
B – Business uses, core business.
These are the uses that I named FLW-S3 in a previous paragraph: simple, specialized and specific. In 2021, the tools best suited to build these FLW-S3 applications are grouped in the “No Code” and “Low Code” families. They can be used directly by the businesses, as close to the field as possible.
D – Data.
FLW applications can access the databases used by Office Workers for classic structured data. In addition, they have very specific needs to efficiently manage the images that will be at the heart of these new uses.
The specificities of the BISD model for FLWs are summarized in the diagram below.
I coined the word “Bureautique” in French (office automation) in the 1970s to refer to the universal computer tools used by Office Workers: word processing, spreadsheet, email…
It’s hard to talk about FLW Office Automation when you know that they are “deskless”, without… desks!
How to name the universal digital tools that will be used by FLWs?
I suggest the word “Frontique”.
Will it have the same success as the word bureautique? The future will tell.
What will be the main frontic features? One thing is certain, it won’t be Office Worker features such as word processing or spreadsheet.
They will be related to the image, which is becoming the dominant interface for FLW.
With the WizyVision teams, we have been working on this subject for years.
The first frontic functions we have identified are:
● Read in the image: find a serial number, take a measurement…
● Find in the image: identify an object present in the image to bring to the FLW the relevant information.
● Count in the image: how many products in a shelf, on a pallet…
● Measure in the image: calculate the surface or volume of an object, determine how many can be loaded in a truck…
Other universal frontic functions will be developed, but in small numbers. The basic principle of frontic functions is that they should be usable by the vast majority of FLWs, regardless of their jobs and industries.
Meeting FLW expectations: WizyVision’s answers
For a few minutes, I’m going to wear my Chief Strategy Officer hat at Wizy.io, a SaaS solution provider for FLWs, of which I am one of the co-founders.
Wizy.io has two products in its catalog:
● WizyEMM, a tool to secure and manage Android devices, primarily for FLW, but not only.
● WizyVision, which puts images at the service of FLWs, which I present here.
As a strategy manager, I’ve been thinking a lot about what the 2,700 million FLWs want. This post is largely the result of those thoughts.
The Wizy.io teams have built the WizyVision solutions that are based on the B I S D model for FLW defined above.
I – Infrastructures: among the three main players in the market, Google’s GCP was an obvious choice:
● Strong skills in image and video with Google Photos and YouTube. The majority of Google’s APIs in these domains are available and used by WizyVision.
● Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning tools at the highest level, such as TensorFlow, a platform developed by Google and made open source as of 2015.
● With Android, Google controls 85% of the mobile market and more than 90% of FLWs are equipped with Android smartphones or tablets. The rare exceptions are in the luxury sector where, for appearance, vendors are sometimes equipped with iPhones and iPads.
● The majority of FLWs are in Asia Pacific, South America or Africa. These are areas where Internet access is often problematic. Google is the world’s largest owner of fiber optics, maritime and terrestrial. Google has also just signed an agreement with Elon Musk’s Starlink, which will provide 100 Mb/s access via low-altitude satellites, primarily in areas with poor Internet coverage.
D- Data: when I searched in 2019 for a French company for a database, cloud native, specialized for multimedia content, I discovered that the offer was… non-existent. This is confirmed by this table, published in 2020, of the main database management solutions for Kubernetes and the three public cloud giants.
There is a plethora of offerings for structured and semi-structured data, in all its forms. You have to go to the last row of the table to see “unstructured”, images, videos, sounds….and the only answers available are non-specialized, S3-like at AWS!
To fill this surprising technical gap, WizyVision built the first and only specialized cloud database for multimedia content, which we called a DAC (Digital Asset Center).
S – Support, Frontic uses: WizyVision is progressively developing all the frontic uses I mentioned above. As they are built on Google’s GCP, they could provide Google with a major competitive advantage over its big competitor Microsoft!
For Office Workers, Google offers Google Workspace, a remarkable solution, but it comes up against the historical near-monopoly of Office 365 tools. Conversely, the first available front-end solutions, built on GCP by WizyVision, will have a boulevard ahead of them!
B – Business uses, core business: WizyVision offers a “No Code” Machine Learning platform, ML Studio, which allows companies and partners to quickly build simple Machine Learning models, in the “FLW-S3” logic presented above.
These strategic choices are summarized in this diagram which presents WizyVision’s answers for the FLW B I S D model.
For companies that decide to offer digital solutions adapted to the real expectations of their FLWs, the good news is that they exist and are operational. WizyVision has the ambition to become a global player on this FLW market, but other offers exist or will appear in the coming years.
This diagram summarizes the strengths of WizyVision solutions:
● Primarily for FLWs.
● Accessible by smartphone.
● Image at the heart of the solution.
● Built on the cloud.
● Uses Artificial Intelligence.
Investing in digital solutions for FLW: what are the benefits
Underinvestment in digital solutions for FLWs has many negative consequences for companies, as this study by Android Enterprise shows:
● Loss of efficiency for the company.
● De-motivated employees.
● Unhappy customers.
Another study, conducted by Emergence in 2018, shows, on the contrary, that there are many potential benefits when a company invests in specific digital solutions for FLW.
The beneficiaries are, at the same time:
● The companies: productivity, cost reduction, compliance…
● The FLW employees, with better working and communication conditions.
● The customers, in contact with FLWs.
Equipping FLWs with high-performance digital solutions is a small investment with a very high return. It would be a shame to miss out on this!
Digitization for FLWs will be one of the key growth drivers for the digital industry this decade.
● Companies in all industries that employ FLWs have much to gain.
● FLWs, finally equipped with digital solutions natively built for them, will see their quality of work life improve rapidly.
● Digital technology providers, in infrastructure and usage, who will be the first to invest in building specialized solutions for FLWs, will get a head start on their competitors which will be hard to catch up with.
A nice trio of winners in perspective!
The potentials are impressive, the first places are up for grabs, but we’ll have to move fast.
We have already seen this with the market for IaaS solutions, Infrastructure as a Service in the cloud: it was in its infancy in 2007, and all bets were off in 2017.
For FLW, the dominant players will be in place before the end of 2030.