Manufacturing has seen significant significant shifts in techology and skill needs in recent years. Pamela Kan, president of Bishop-Wisecarver Group, a manufacturer of linear and rotary motion products, spoke with Associate Editor Jenel Stelton-Holtmeier about what those shifts mean for the industry and what manufacturers and distributors need to do to respond.
MDM: There have been some big advances in manufacturing technology in recent years. How is this changing the industry?
Pamela Kan: We’re in a time and place where I think we’re going to see more rapid expansion of technology. I don’t even know if we can even think about the total impact just yet. From the things that are happening with materials and coatings and nano and additive manufacturing … And when you add pure technology layers like augmented reality, it’s huge. Everything that’s coming down the pipe with sensors – from sensors in your production floor to sensors in your product – the amount of data feedback loops that we’ll start to have around our production and our customer usage of products is amazing.
That kind of stuff gets me going; it’s all really exciting. I think we’re right on the edge of a whole new way of making things. And this is where America really excels, in taking these types of innovations and really exploiting them. It’s a great time to be in manufacturing.
MDM: It seems that these advancements have changed the workforce needs of the industry, as well.
Kan: Yes. You hear a lot of talk about STEM and STEM education – science, technology, engineering and mathematics. But the Rhode Island School of Design is now promoting a STEAM-based education, which is science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics. And I see that being referred to more and more now.
When you’re creating things virtually, you have to have a greater creative, artistic sense to really visualize these things when it’s happening in multiple dimensions and layers. It’s a whole different thinking process that we need.
If you take it back to the question of how is this changing the workforce, I think there’s going to be a big shift in the type of skill sets that we’re going to need – not just the purely technical sense and skill set of the workers, but their ability to have that creative, artistic, innovative way of thinking. That’s very hard, and I don’t even know how you teach that in some ways.
MDM: What role do you see manufacturers and distributors playing in this?
Kan: Manufacturers and distributors need to start playing a role. They have to get engaged, and they have to get involved in working with the schools, working with their state governments and actually voicing the importance of a STEM-based education to creating graduates with employable skill sets.
It’s starting to get out there; you’re seeing it more. But especially in our industry, we tend to be a little bit passive at times. We’re not as vocal and we’re not as engaged in the political and educational channels. We all have to get involved, and we all have to start speaking up. We need to be really clear about what is going to be required.
MDM: The flip side of all this is that some people have been reporting a challenge in recruiting and retaining the talented workforce that does exist. Are you seeing that problem?
Kan: This is one of the outcomes of having kids that have grown up playing Internet games, what people are starting to call the gamification of the workforce. There’s a difference in our employees, especially those that are under 30. The attention span is different. There’s a need for a constant feedback loop. They need to feel like they’re always advancing, as if you’re playing a game and getting an extra life or advancing to the next level.
For some of the younger employees, it’s really hard if they’re doing the same thing for too long or if they don’t feel like they’re making a difference or moving things to the next level. Keeping the younger generation engaged in their jobs is much tougher today.
MDM: How can the industry address that challenge?
Kan: We need to rethink how we run our companies and how we do work; for example, cross-functional groups to solve problems and work on projects.
Some traditional thoughts about career advancement may have to change. Instead of big career advancements, people are getting smaller more incremental advancements or title changes. I think that is what the younger generation needs to feel like they’re staying engaged and staying on the right track with the company.
It’s going to be tough for a lot of industries. Manufacturing and distribution isn’t normally on the cutting edge of some of those HR changes. So it will be interesting to see how that ends up impacting our industries.
MDM: Changing direction, you’ve been identified by your peers as a leader in social media for business. So why do you think there’s a hesitation in this industry to engage through social media?
Kan: Number one, they don’t understand it. And if they don’t understand it, they fear it. When the Internet came out, there was this fear about what it would do. When email came about, it
was “Oh that will never be used in work.” We’re at that point with social media. It feels very overwhelming to a lot of companies; they don’t know where to start, they don’t know how to measure it or justify the expenditure of resources.
They need to understand that this is a different and new channel to the market, and they have to learn about it just like any other one.
It really goes back to trust and that overall lack of understanding. When I speak at conferences or at industry meetings, I hear, “I can’t control what my employees are doing on social media.” But you can actually know exactly what all your employees are saying. That’s the power of it. You can know what all of your customers and your competitors are saying, as well, if you learn how to use it.
I find it really ironic that there’s this sense of lack of control over the use of the medium. How much control do you really have of what your salesman says to a customer he’s taking to lunch? You have no control of what that salesman is saying about you, your company, the product or the competition. You have no documentation of that conversation.
MDM: What kind of return have you seen from participating in social media?
Kan: That’s something that we’re continuing to refine and get better at. It’s definitely great for brand awareness. But for us, it really is a lead-generating machine. The amount of traffic we’re able to get to our website or our YouTube channel is outstanding. For a company our size, to have a YouTube channel with more than half a million hits is phenomenal. That’s a scale I cannot get through any other advertising medium in our industry.
ROI is much easier to track on digital technologies than it is through print. Tell me what you get from doing a print ad; quantify that ROI for me. I can give you much more data around an electronic newsletter than I can over a printed page.
MDM: What platforms are the best for manufacturers and distributors to explore?
Kan: I actually gave this question to my digital marketing person. And here’s what she wrote: I can’t really say which platform is best because every company will find their audience in different places. I think that’s what people really need to understand: You have to spend the time to figure out where your customers are and where your customers are hanging out. And it might not be where you think they’re hanging out. It’s about quality not quantity.
MDM: What’s your advice for how to begin developing a social media strategy?
Kan: It’s no different than how you write your strategy for marketing in general for your company. It’s part of your overall marketing campaign and your media campaign. They should be synergistic, they should have one voice. It’s Marketing 101, you’re just doing it through a different medium.
A lot of people are using a shotgun approach; they rifle off all this different stuff across different channels with no real plan behind it. They have no consistent voice to what they’re doing out there, and they don’t manage it like they would truly manage a marketing campaign even though that’s what it is.
And they don’t do it with the frequency required. If you open a Twitter account and you only tweet once a week, that’s never going to have an ROI for you. Twitter is about instant news, about instant responses, and if you’re only logging in once a week, don’t even bother.
The expectations around the medium are unrealistic. I hear it all the time “We tried Twitter, and it didn’t work,” but when I ask them how long they did it, they say “a week.” What in this life gives you a return in a week?
Social is about engagement. That’s one of the biggest mistakes I see in our industry. Every time they put something out there, they’re talking about themselves and their product. If you go to a party and you run into the guy that won’t stop talking about himself, you move away.
This is no different. Someone who’s a blowhard on social media is not going to get engagement because nobody wants to hear about your chain or your sprocket or your linear system all day long. You have to learn how to mix up your content, and you have to provide content that positions you as a thought leader. Not just about your product, but what’s important to your constituents.
MDM: What do you see as the “next big thing” in this ever-changing industry?
Kan: The Internet with social technologies has truly put the customer in the driver seat. I see manufacturers and distributors who don’t believe that this is the reality. And I think some of them are going to pay a really severe price for that.
When you have a culture that more and more is telling people that they should be able to have what they want, when they want it, how they want it, to have an industry tell the customer what they can buy, how they can buy it, that’s going to be a rude awakening.
Ultimately the customer is going to dictate and those companies that create platforms that foster that type of relationship are the ones that are going to win.