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As software providers, we focus largely on manufacturing (and distribution) clients, and so as a service to all we like to periodically report on trends and developments in the manufacturing sector, such as today’s post about a jobs program that helps Americans get back into manufacturing in a practical, no-nonsense kind of way.

A good start can be found at a workforce initiative in Louisville, Kentucky, called KentuckianaWorks, funded by several entities including local and federal agencies, along with JPMorgan Chase.  Recognizing that “manufacturing jobs are here and growing in numbers” but that unskilled assembly-line work has been replaced by advanced manufacturing jobs, KentuckianaWorks made a large commitment to support training for manufacturing (and other) jobs by designing a five-week “Certified Production Technician” training program, along with a two-week variation, for displaced workers aged 18-60.  Only a bit over half stick around to completion, but those who do find jobs quickly.  The program has already placed nearly a thousand graduates at an average of about $13 per hour.

The skills programs focus on computing and technical skills, as well as basic math and problem-solving – in other words, just want manufacturing managers say they are looking for today.  Meanwhile, over 80% of U.S. executives said in a recent survey that the skills gap will affect their ability to meet customer demand, and nearly as many claimed it would “make it more difficult for them to use new technologies and increase productivity,” according to a recent article in Bloomberg Businessweek.

Over the next decade, well over 3 million manufacturing jobs are expected to become available as boomers retire and economic growth spurs work opportunities.  Those figures come from the Manufacturing Institute in Washington D.C. Yet a “skills gap” means that about 2 million of those jobs could go unfilled.

The KentuckyianaWorks program works with local manufacturers to help design their two courses.  Companies who have worked with KW graduates say that their basic training “sets them apart from other entry-level candidates,” so that once hired, employers can help employees expand their knowledge and increase the likelihood of continued employment and promotions.  Recruiters say that while not every hire works out, the success rate with these trainees is higher than with other hires.

In an era of increasing and often unrealistic clamor and hype about bringing back jobs, it’s programs like these that are helping to make manufacturing hiring a reality, and closing the gap between needed hires and the skills gaps too often found in potential hires.

 

Annette Franz is a noted blogger who writes often (here) on “improving both the customer experience and the employee experience by utilizing their software platforms to facilitate listening to and operationalizing the voice of the constituent.”  That’s a mouthful, but in short, she is all about empowering people and consulting on improving customer and employee experiences.

In a recent article in the March/April issue of APICS Magazine, she reminds all of us who manage businesses of a few key tips for empowering our employees so that they become more productive – both for us and to our customers.  Following are a few of Ms. Franz’s suggestions:

  • Define what empowerment means at your company. Think ahead and set expectations and boundaries.
  • Outline what doing right means and what it looks like.
  • Describe and reinforce with your team what great customer experience is, and what it means for the customer and to the business.
  • Ensure employees have the knowledge and skills to do what you’re expecting of them. Train, communicate and provide a framework.  Then, let them do their jobs.
  • Make sure workers know how they affect business outcomes.
  • Confirm that your people have a clear line of sight to the customer. Let them lose the script – empowered employees don’t need one.  Trust them to make the right choices and decisions for the customer.
  • Remind employees that going the extra mile doesn’t have to cost a dime. Customers just want them to listen and act.  Allow for common sense, but don’t necessarily rely on it.
  • Evaluate progress and the business environment. If necessary, eliminate any vagueness and refine goals.
  • Provide feedback and coaching so people know if they’re on the right track.
  • When employees comprehend the vision and are allowed to execute on it, businesses realize numerous meaningful productivity enhancements in teamwork, creativity and overall satisfaction.

We’ve been in consulting long enough ourselves to have seen these principles put in play by smart companies with forward thinking managers.  Sadly, we’ve also witnessed the cold vibe of the highly secretive, micro-managed, non-empowered company.  Which would you rather work for?

 

In a new book entitledcomplacent-class, author Tyler Cowen notes that the entrepreneurship rate in the United States has plummeted to about 7.5% of American companies today that are considered “startups,” down from about 13% in the 1980s (when, coincidentally, our firm started, back in the recession of 1987).

At the same time, the percentage of workers who “switch jobs” every year, a general indicator of workers finding better prospects elsewhere – as opposed to shifts caused by layoffs – has declined by nearly 50% since 2000.  Cowen further points out the overall decline in measured productivity, now at about half the post WWII average since we moved out of the great recession, as well as about a 25% decline since 2000 in U.S. patents that are also filed in Europe and Japan (an indicator of greater scientific rigor, he believes).

More alarmingly, the type of innovation occurring these days tends to be more incremental than fully transformational.  Here, think: Uber, Airbnb or Snap, to name just three recent examples of the new innovation.

One of Cowen’s conclusions appears to be that a “complacent class” — defined as a risk-averse populace that has lost “the capacity to imagine or embrace a world where things do change rapidly for most if not all people” – has “sapped us of the pioneer spirit that made America the world’s most productive economy.”

In his book, Cowen points out the contrast between the changes of the past 50 years and those that occurred in the first half of the 20th century.  His view is that we went from dramatic improvements in health and education, coupled with a vast proliferation in technologies like autos, planes and phones, to the changes in the past 50 years which, by contrast, he finds more modest.  “A lot of our technological world seems to have stood pretty much still.”

Cowen draws an interesting point, noting how what he calls “matching” makes it easier than ever for people to find what they need, or an algorithm thinks they need.  It’s true for shopping for everything for music and movies to clothes and spouses.  A click or a swipe and, often as not, we find what we’d previously had to spend a long time looking for. (He even humorously points to a new dating app from Oscar Mayer for specifically targeting bacon-lovers.  You gotta’ love it.)  His implication appears to be that we are both less creatively inclined perhaps, and more complacent in accepting the status quo as life becomes easier, and the incentive to improvise and create diminishes.

Cowen, an Economics professor at George Mason University predicts the U.S. will see a wave of online crime that will “wall off” the Internet, thus “reinforcing group isolation.”  He sees the world becoming a more dangerous place, where “the higher the benefits of peace, the more gun-shy and war-shy the prosperous and peaceful countries will become.”  He sees this as incentive for smaller, radicalized groups to “seize territory or start wars…”

There are many who would argue against some of his depressing and Doomsday predictions.  While it acknowledges the recent decline in startups, it hasn’t yet allowed time for the necessary re-emergence from the most recent recession, nor for the entrepreneurial spirit many in business today see around us in the up and coming generation of new entrepreneurs.  In other words, the jury’s out.

Whether you agree or disagree with Cowen’s assumptions and conclusions, he’ll make you think.  And isn’t that, at the core of it, what ultimately incentivizes the entrepreneur — thinking of a better way?  Here’s hoping his dire predictions can be undone in some small, ironic way with some soul-searching by tomorrow’s entrepreneurs on the conclusions he draws.

changechangechangeWe came across a good article recently on the difficulties of “organizational change management” – and what to do about them.  It’s an issue every company faces at one time or another, and although the author (Eric Kimberling of Panorama Consulting) normally opines about most things ERP, his comments are apropos of most any organization that is challenged by change.  We’ll share those thoughts here today.

Speaking specifically of ERP software projects (but really, of any structural organizational change), Kimberling notes that change resistance can come from every level of the organization.  Executives may fear that the change does not align with their goals and objectives.  Others may feel their voices were not heard.  End-users may resist because they don’t understand why change is even necessary (or worse, we might add, the dreaded “… but we’ve always done it this way.”)

Once you’ve identified root causes of the resistance, Kimberling suggests four strategies to help employees accept change:

  1. Understand objections. Too often, the importance of listening is overlooked.  Employees generally care, often a lot – and simply want (and need) to be heard.  Readiness assessments, surveys and focus groups can help.  But don’t discount the value of simply asking, listening and communicating thoughtfully.
  2. Encourage employee engagement. As Kimberling states: “By involving employees in key decisions, they will be more likely to support organizational changes.”  Employers should strive to help employees understand how the change relates to them specifically, if they want to create a sense of ownership.
  3. Communicate organizational goals. Directly communicate with employees about the changes, the impact, the effects on them, and the reasons behind the change initiative.  Talk about tangible goals, other examples or past successes.  Focus on outcomes in order to create a desire for change.
  4. Finally, don’t give up. Any employee can become an advocate for change, but it takes time.  Don’t lose hope in your team.  Instead, he suggests, “focus on converting the strongest, loudest dissenters so they can use their energy for good.”

The most effective change management strategies require planning and communication well beyond the bullet points on a memo.  Take your time, plan, and communicate constantly.  As many business owners will tell you, change is about the hardest thing to master in business.

The Myth of Going Viral

going-viralEvery blogger, web poster and Twitter or Facebook aficionado dreams of the day one of their posts goes viral.  (We wrote of our own brief brush with viral fame back in 2010 with a post on multi-tasking that reached  2,500 hits – still trivial by internet viral-ity standards.)

But as it turns out, going viral is usually not what it appears to be.  When we see a Facebook post with thousands of shares, or a YouTube video with millions of hits, we’re inclined to think that’s the result of countless ‘personal’ shares, “like infected individuals passing along the flu,” as Derek Thomson, author of Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction, noted in a recent article for Time.

Apparently, for a long time no one really knew whether a popular idea or product was truly viral.  It was hard to track precise word-of-mouth buzz.  But online, scientists have been busily studying information as it pings around the Internet, and in 2012 researchers at Yahoo studied the spread of messages on Twitter.

Their conclusion: nothing really ever goes viral.

Thompson notes that more than 90% of messages did not ‘diffuse’ at all.  About 95% of what we see on Twitter comes directly from its source, or from one degree of separation.

Thompson writes: “Popularity on the Internet is still driven by the biggest broadcasters – not by a million 1-to-1 shares, but rather by a handful of 1-to-1 million shares.”  They come from a wide range of blast points –not just the legacy TV companies like NBC, CBS or Fox, but from places like Reddit or, yes, the Kardashians.

While the viral myth is enchanting to writers because it feels so uplifting, promising small-time writers, photographers, artists and videographers a shot at widespread artistic fame, alas, it rings mostly false.  While it might feel good to think of the Internet as a bastion of democracy where anybody can become a star by making something interesting or good enough, it’s not really the case.

In the end, as Derek Thompson says, “virality is a David myth obscuring the fact that the Internet is still run by Goliaths.”

 

code-schoolThey’re called Code Schools.  Scattered now across the U.S. is a growing number of usually short-term (i.e., 12-week) intensive training programs aimed at providing core skills to a growing army of tomorrow’s workers: coders, aka programmers.  These may well be the bricklayers of the 21st century.

In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal Christopher Mims points out one such enterprise in Akron, Ohio, that charges about $14,000 for its three month course of study.  Graduates include Alex Mathis who said “If you’d told me several years ago that I was going to be a computer programmer and working for a software company I wouldn’t have believed you.”  Mathis went from being a shipping manager to a higher-paid programmer upon graduation.

As Mims notes, “Across the U.S., change is coming for the ecosystem of employers, educational institutions and job seekers who confront the increasingly software-driven nature of work.  A potent combination – a yawning skills gap, stagnant middle-class wages and diminished career prospects for millennials – is bringing about a rapid shift in the labor market for coders and other technical professionals.”

Mind you, these code schools aren’t necessarily creating rock stars.  These aren’t the top of the food chain programmers who end up at Google or Facebook.  These schools, rather, are designed to turn out the junior developers and apprentices that will later be dropped into teams of other, more experienced programmers, to ply their craft at today’s industrial and knowledge companies, while furthering their educations there.

Most are engaged in the truly productive work of transferring and translating business processes into code, or mining data for business advantage, or maintaining and upgrading legacy systems.  In short, they’re doing the work that stokes the American business engine.  Critical infrastructure work designed to help companies grow.

On a personal note, firms like ours can perhaps be allowed a touch of pride for providing exactly that sort of work for clients (for, in our case, these past three decades).  In this blog we’ve bemoaned the dearth of effective programs for training the next generation of productive workers for this economy.  We’ve noted the successes of Germany and Japan in realizing that not every student was meant to go to college, and so have built apprentice programs and guilds that help ease young people from the realm of highs school students into the professionally employed – especially in manufacturing.

And so we can only nod approvingly when Mims concludes his piece as follows:

“U.S. manufacturers have spent decades developing guilds, vocational training programs and in-house retraining efforts to keep workers up to date… What is happening now with code schools is very much the reinvention of that system, but for professionals who work with bits, rather than widgets.”

 

NAV LOGO 2016Users of Microsoft Dynamics NAV software know what we learned ourselves about 15 years ago: that they’re fortunate to own about the best all-around ERP software on the planet.  As resellers, we have choices about what to sell (we offer two today, as we long have, NAV being one of them).  And after extensive research some time ago we eliminated a wide range of options to settle on NAV – before, incidentally, it was even owned by Microsoft.

Fifteen years later, our opinion has not changed much – though NAV itself has.  It’s grown and matured and opened even further into realms of deeper functionality and interoperability with lots of other software and add-ins, like most software today.  But it’s retained its extensive flexibility, modifiability, customizability and extensibility – now across multiple platforms – and allowed deeper analysis in the hands of those who know to handle it, than probably anything out there today.  It does this in large measure because at its core it was developed, years ago (in Denmark) as a world-class platform by some world-class programmers, who in hindsight were ahead of their time.

Because it’s been around a while, folks running older versions of NAV occasionally need to consider the question of upgrading what they have, which means stepping through the various subsequent versions if they have not stayed up to date… or taking another look at their business through the lens of NAV today, with all its new features, capabilities and cross-functionality with add-in products, and deciding whether they should consider re-implementing with the new version.  This could mean moving away from old modifications because the new software may now innately support the desired functionality, or simply because the old workflows can be replaced by NAV’s new and improved workflow capabilities.

For example, if you’re on NAV 2009 (or prior), your business is probably different from back then.  As NAV blogger Duncan Kerr asks of that situation in a recent post at MSDynamicsWorld.com, “If we were doing this now, how could we make it even better? Are those old databases and modifications worth hanging on to?”

Often, old customizations become new “features” of newer NAV versions.  For example, he notes, item attributes that were previously a customization are now standard, and there are better ways to link dimensions today through standard functionality.

Then too, we’ve seen folks with modifications that in hindsight they may not have needed once they discover the full capabilities of NAV.  Kerr points out the power of “workflows” in the latest NAV 2017:

“The redesign of the Dynamics NAV workflow engine means you can very quickly and easily introduce a workflow that allows you to control your business, and solve business problems. There is now an internal NAV workflow engine – but also the wider Microsoft Flow within Office365. In the past you would find yourself saying “The costs on that item were wrong, now my inventory’s wrong,” or “The customer wasn’t credit checked and we just found out he’s a bad risk.” Now you have out-of-the-box workflows to review those things before they’re used.”

Kerr summarizes his thoughts about upgrades and re-implementations by noting that “The point of an upgrade or reimplementation isn’t simply about functionality; it’s also about moving to a platform that allows using a wider range of technology, like Office 365 and Power BI. The technology feels fresher and more modern, and you’ve got staff coming in who expect to see the latest and greatest.”

NAV users who remain current on maintenance have the good fortune of knowing that those benefits are within their grasp, and often worth pursuing.  They already own their software, so it’s really just a matter of the time-costs required to do the upgrade, and not starting over – as so many older ‘legacy’ ERP and accounting system users are finding themselves doing today.  In other words, upgrading, even re-implementing, become another way to extend your business software ROI.