American individualism is an idea both routed and touted. Depending on the context and who is talking, it can be synonymous with personal freedom, capitalism, self-reliance, the entrepreneurial spirit, the right to free speech, personal responsibility, selfishness and that certain American-style je ne sais quoi that shows up with such delicious consistency in our heroes and antiheroes, fictional and factual. Even those who find the idea wanting more often than not betray an air of reluctant admiration.
How could they not? Most Americans want to believe we live in a country where each individual is free to be the master of his or her own fate, whether the fate desired is successfully running a CNC machine shop or becoming the president of a university. If you have the will to be a self-made man or woman, the thinking goes, the opportunities to do just that exist, regardless of where you come from or what you start with.
Reality, of course, is rarely so tidy as our ideas, and people have routinely and historically encountered great difficulty — through no fault of their own — in the pursuit of their own individual and business aims (See: government policies, implicit bias, etc.). For those of us working in U.S. manufacturing, however, clinging to the idea is problematic for a slew of other reasons, too.
The thing is, going it alone rarely happens anymore. The idea’s persistence proves little more than that we have a deep nostalgia for a time when “Pony Express” was a literal job. For U.S. manufacturers in particular, holding too tightly to the idea that individuals are key to performance and innovation is unnecessarily limiting and short-sighted. It also won’t make for a competitive advantage in the constantly shifting Now.
Here’s a look at how rapidly advancing technologies and an evolving sense of “team” are fast encouraging U.S. manufacturers and their suppliers to undergo a massive makeover. Tech and team are teaming up to put antiquated notions of DIY to rest. At the same time, they’re carving our collective path to greater productivity, efficiency and creativity.
It wasn’t too long ago in our species’ history that physical strength and prowess had meaning and merit outside of athletic achievements. From farming to hunting to the fields of battle, the strength and physical presence of real people — usually men — was required and relished. When the Industrial Revolution found its footing, however, all that changed. Industrialization was like nothing that preceded it. From reliance upon the human body, domesticated animals and tools, entire economies shifted to a reliance on water- and steam-driven machines and the capital that financed them. Brawn lost its coveted status. The machine supplanted the physical body as the primary way work happened. Yes, human beings were still needed to design, operate, assist and maximize the new machines, but the primacy of human or animal strength in labor was over.
The machine’s transformation continued, and we continued to transform with it. What is now recognized as the Second Industrial Revolution — mass production powered by electricity — found its first expression on the automobile assembly line. Productivity increased tenfold, sometimes more. Wages grew. So did dependence on mechanization. By the time the Computer Age — the Third Industrial Revolution — dawned, humans in industrialized societies relied on machines for washing the dishes, getting to work and handling mortgages. Brawn, already made largely passé by the Spinning Jenny and her progeny, scooted over to make room for the next piece of the human pie being made slowly less valuable by the machine: the Brain.
In less than 300 years, the machine evolved to replace much of what humans had done for work for millennia, completely overhauling work and human culture on a global scale. Things have changed fast. We don’t do many of the things we once did. We do things on a daily basis our great-grandparents would find deeply perplexing. Who we once were is no longer who we are. And the pace has only begun to heat up.
The digital and automation revolution that started during the middle of the 20th century has begun to morph into something entirely different. Called the Fourth Industrial Revolution or Industry 4.0, it’s marked by exponential leaps into brand-new technological territory. Lines we once counted on to delineate separate spheres, be they physical, cognitive or digital, have blurred. What awaits us on the other side — our cyborged selves, robots designed to serve our every whim, digital immortality, a jobless future, true AI — is unclear. That we are on a path to something that has never happened before, however, is not.
In manufacturing, this reality has already leaned in so close it’s fogging up the glass. Regardless of whether you’re talking about CNC machining, supply chain management, 3D printing or IIoT, the manufacturing landscape is in the process of being dramatically altered. Robots, cobots, data that’s gathered, analyzed and put into action through machine learning with nary a human to spur it on or check the work — this is not the world any of us were born into but it is the world we live in. That any of us still manage to understand ourselves as single units working alone to create, discover, assemble, design, machine or market anything is as quaint a notion as believing you can step out your door and go hunting for a mastodon.
Tech has chosen us as its partner, and in all things, we amplify it and it amplifies us. No matter what you do in your job — especially if you’re a manufacturer, CNC machinist or additive printing wizard — you almost certainly work in tech and with tech. For some, it could even be said that you work for tech and as tech. You are no longer an “I.” Thanks to the advancing edges of technology, in almost every facet of your work and life, you are increasingly a “we.”
The individual’s resources amplified by technology’s power is only part of the equation, however. It’s when individuals and tech join together in intelligent teams that the real magic starts to happen.
There’s been a lot of hubbub here of late about the effects of automation and other advanced technologies on work, especially in the manufacturing sector. It’s an issue worth exploring, measuring and crafting careful policy around. But regardless of what comes down the next technological pipeline, there is one uniquely human element the Fourth Industrial Revolution won’t be able to easily sideline: the human being in collaboration with other human beings.
The most impressive and far-reaching companies of today have fostered collaboration in creative ways in order to drive the kind of innovation that can only happen when teams are at work together. Google, at one time, famously required employees to spend 20 percent of their workweek on projects that were not part of their core job. Executives viewed such cross-pollination as a key to innovation. The results? Everything from Gmail to Google Brain. Dean Kamen, arguably one of the most impressive minds and inventors of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, claims collaboration with his team is essential for his innovative leaps. IBM Watson isn’t just propelled forward and fueled by a team; Watson has a team of teams. In short, collaboration between human beings, even as the Fourth Industrial Age dawns, is a primary driver of bleeding edge innovation.
For U.S. manufacturing, this news is incredibly good. After all, if what you need to do to drive competitiveness is increased innovation, and if you can most effectively increase innovation through the collaborative efforts of people, then all you need to do is get the right people together and innovation will follow. While the individuals that make up your teams are important, a resume or CV alone isn’t enough to help you build your company’s version of IBM’s Watson.
Sometimes a team exceeds the potential of its members. Sometimes, it does not. Either way, a team’s performance is anything but random. Science Magazine published an article a few years ago that laid out research on a concept called General Collective Intelligence. The authors conducted two studies with 699 people to determine what characteristics added to or detracted from group intelligence — as measured by a group’s performance across a diverse variety of tasks.
Counter to their expectations, high General Collective Intelligence didn’t correlate with high average group IQs or with the presence of highly intelligent people in a group. Instead, group intelligence rose in groups with a high concentration of skills commonly referred to as “soft.” In particular, the average social sensitivity of people in the group, how evenly distributed conversation was and whether or not group members took turns talking. The study also found group intelligence rose or fell based on the proportion of women present in a group. The more women a group had, the higher the group’s collective intelligence and performance tended to be.
In other words, the subtleties of human relationships are among the most important drivers of creativity and innovation. Especially as accelerating technologies remake our world, building collaborative teams of socially sensitive people is one clear path to gaining real competitive advantage.
For U.S. manufacturing to keep and gain market share over the coming decades, egos and I’s must take a backseat to equitable effort, empathy, listening and collaboration. Yes, the future is increasingly tech-centered, tech-driven and tech-determined, but if we partner with it — and with one another — there’s no reason the future can’t include plenty for the American worker.