Opportunity from chaos - Schneider Electric powers up for the future for manufacturing post-COVID

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan October 19, 2020
Alice Williams of Schneider Electric on customer service, accelerated digitization and the future of work.


Every sector has of course been disrupted by COVID-19 and the connected manufacturing space is no different in that respect. How organizations operating there have ridden out the pandemic to date and what direction lies ahead was the theme of a discussion at the recent Salesforce Live UK&I event. 

Setting the scene was Stefanie Naujoks, Research Director at IDC, who advised: 

There are three key things that are relevant for manufacturers to prepare for the 'next normal', considering that change and disruption will have to be built into business models and business operations.

The first is about becoming operationally resilient. That refers to manufacturers being able to continue to provide business operations in the face of adverse operational events and at the same time, not forget about becoming more efficient in whatever they do. 

The second theme relates to increasing the focus on Customer Experience and in fact on high value Customer Experience, which is about engaging customers in a much more focused and comprehensive way than in the past, in order to demonstrate relevance to customers. 

The third theme is about integrated ecosystem collaboration strategies. This is because in order to be able to deliver high value Customer Experience and also to improve operational efficiency and resiliency, we expect to see much closer collaborations in ecosystems such as across supply chains or for magnitude innovations.

The question now is, how are these major themes to be addressed by manufacturers over time? Because becoming a digital and connected future enterprise will not happen overnight. 

On the ground 

So that’s the analyst theory. How that is playing out on the ground was a story picked up by Alice Williams, VP of Strategy & Commercial Excellence UK&I at industrial behemoth Schneider Electric. The firm is about “everything electrified” as Williams defines it, operating across 17 sectors, from airports and automotive through to hotels and residential - everything “from source to socket”, she says. 

From its vantage point, Schneider Electric is well positioned to identify key trends in the sector. What’s interesting, according to Williams, is that it’s another example of an increasingly familiar COVID-related theme - that of the crisis accelerating already existing tectonic shifts, especially around digital transformation: 

COVID has just put the accelerator pedal down on the whole thing. What we're starting to see, particularly around the digitization agenda, is really playing across the different business concerns about customer sets. So whether your main focus right now is sustainability or whether it's safety of your staff or whether it's efficiency, the role of  remote connectivity, the importance of robotics and automation, the really interesting  thing is as the lines start to blur, so our customers and we are starting to think about how we sit on that edge, in terms of the edge control, the different application integrations and platform integration.

That shift changes the way in which an organization like Schneider Electric engages with and services its customers, she adds, with the Salesforce platform as a technology enabler: 

If we reflect on our engagement with customers, we simply want to live that digitalization journey, because we can see a whole lot of benefits for it, not only with the customers that we work with in B2B, but also our expectation of our partners that help us do the bridge to B2C as well. We want anything that touches Schneider Electric to be truly in the future, believing in technology and really embracing digitization. The interesting thing is around the urgency which we think [everybody] should be embodying now. You know, the industrial space, the manufacturing space, has everything from very traditional manufacturing organizations to your world-leading [organizations]. I think our sense of the minute is we have a real renewed sense of urgency around adoption, so that people don't get left behind. 


Data has to be at the center of everything, she counsels: 

Throughout all of history, people would have killed for the access to data that we're privileged to have now.  Data is absolutely king in my view.  It's the future commodity. That is a real realisation that is coming quickly. The great thing about data and the way in which we have data now, is that it allows us to make genuinely meaningful decisions and track meaningful trends and actually have very personalized engagement by having mass data, as odd as that sounds. 

But the challenging thing about data is that we can now track so much, you end up with the risk of data paralysis. That's where, even with teams and teams of data analysts, we've got to embrace AI, because we have all of these data points now. Particularly with our customers, we have a lot of information in terms of what they need, what their market's doing, what their ambition is, their life cycle in terms of when they can invest. But at the minute, mapping all of that together into something which gives a very clear mandate and a very clear engagement strategy is quite challenging. 

So the real vision for what we're trying to achieve now is having a single version of the truth, which includes the marketing side of the organization, which includes sales, which includes our Customer Care Center and all of those touch points with our customers, then using very powerful analytics to help us drive a joined-up approach. The interesting thing about all of those sectors is the lines are starting to blur and we don't want to operate just in our silos anymore. But we do have almost too much data to do it without a very smart analytics system.

The future of work

Again as in other sectors, Schneider Electric has seen a massive shift to working from home in the industrial manufacturing space, although inevitably key installations have needed still to have staff on site. For the future, Williams believes that the workforce of tomorrow will remain split in this way: 

We have nine manufacturing sites in the UK, all of which have been fully manned for the whole period since March. We also then have a couple of thousand employees who've been working from home, to great effect if we reflect on it. That [division] comes with the challenge of maintaining togetherness and a single united company behind the vision and of course, it comes with a challenge around connected employees and a sense of being in a team - and also some real mental health challenges. Actually it's an industry which is used to having to tackle mental health challenges related to isolation, because the very nature of services to do with industry and manufacturing mean that you have people on the road in quite high stress environments or high threat environments, often isolated. So I think we're trying to use some of the best practices we've learned through that. 

In terms of our view of the future, I think we've really got to drive and define what our new future is going to be. Clearly we are subject to regulations and how we tackle COVID particularly, but [we should be] actually embracing the idea that this could be a really good thing and a really powerful thing. It allows us to get back to the heart of what we want to be doing for our customers. So if we can get efficiency on digital engagement or we can actually really unlock some of the potential of doing things like genuinely remote connectivity, remote resilience tracking and actually harnessing some of that, it should free up time for us to genuinely engage on the human level to deeply understand customers ambitions, concerns and what they want to do with their businesses going forward. Potentially we've been in a technology and connectivity space that's been limited because everyone has been slaves to email and Zoom meetings. But if we get it right. it should actually create more time to have those genuine conversations that help people build business together and partner in a really meaningful way.

There’s also the ongoing question of the skills crisis, but on this topic Williams is commendably upbeat: 

We all like to talk about the future of the workforce and the challenge of the skills gap that we're perceiving. But what we are really seeing now is this complete kind of merger of those coming in at the start of their careers, who are highly skilled, highly able at this kind of digital future and what we need to actually drive forward in that - so understanding analytics, understanding Artificial Intelligence - and matching them with  our industry leaders and all of that thought repository, knowledge repository we have. We've been in the business for 40 years. 

Now the question is how do you bridge the two? How do you actually extract all of that knowledge from parts of your workforce that have been there a long time, while also  unlocking the potential of your starters and not having a friction gap between the two? I think that is about having a genuine commitment to mobility and to talent and to being very open to rapid and very agile innovation, but also not alienating the parts of your organization that have that knowledge. So giving them the space in which they can still help and direct and lead and actually having cross generational teams. But you've got to get it right. Perhaps actually this connected point is the time to do it, because we're all connecting in this kind of way and it brings people together in a different environment that they're not used to, which does make you think in a different way. 

Overall, it’s a time of challenge, but also opportunity, Williams concludes: 

The real thing which I'm passionate about right now is seeing the opportunity in chaos. Undoubtedly we're all living this situation together and it is easy almost to become burdened by the whole thing. But this is also an opportunity to decide to be really proactive about how we want to lead the industry forward together. We're in it together, we may as well come out of it together. There's a lot of innovation, a lot of exciting things coming, particularly in the UK as one of the major hubs of innovation, and it just should be daunting, but overridingly exciting

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