How are companies in Kenya and Spain equipping themselves for the digital age?
Digitalisation, automation, artificial intelligence ... The future of work is a hot topic in Germany. It’s the focus for new projects, support plans and investment in infrastructure. Forecasts assume that automation will radically alter roughly half of all jobs.
But what is the international take on the future of work? The Alumniportal Deutschland asked experts in Kenya and Spain about the preparations local companies are making.
What is Work 4.0?
Before we go any further, we need to explain what we are talking about. Briefly: Work 4.0 is about a revolution in economic activity and work.
This revolution challenges not just traditional production methods and sales routes but also how we organise work, how we interact with one another (in other words, corporate culture) and what we define as work on the one hand and life on the other. Non-hierarchical teams and creative, cool co-working spaces are at one end of the scale of future scenarios – and robot-controlled factories devoid of humans at the other.
Economics experts like Stewart Wallis of the New Economics Foundation also believe we need not just a shift in how we do business but a completely new system “that will live within planetary means, that will be fairer, and that will be focused as its key goal not on growth per se but on maximising human well-being”.
These are big plans. But what’s happening in practice? Are companies already working on this transformation? Is it feasible in the environments and conditions in which they operate? We chose two very different countries – industrialised Spain and developing country Kenya – and asked specialists there whether they, and in particular German companies with local operations, are already noticing the dawning of the digital age, how it is affecting them and what their expectations are.
Innovative companies in Kenya
Let’s look at Kenya first. The East African state is in the medium human development category of the Human Development Index (HDI), positioned at 142 out of 189 countries. The developing country is pursuing ambitious economic goals; politically, it is a leading regional power.
Marah Köberle, Deputy Country Director at the Delegation of German Industry and Commerce in Kenya, has been observing developments in the country. “Here in Kenya very different trends are under way: on the one hand, in Nairobi there are a large number of innovative companies working for Silicon Valley corporations on the basis of business process outsourcing – for example photo tagging services in the field of machine learning.”
Digital companies can only succeed where good technological infrastructure is available. “Especially in its major cities, Kenya has better network coverage via satellites and fibre optic cables than Germany. Using the internet is also significantly cheaper than in Europe.”
But on the other hand, traditional structures are still predominant: face-to-face contact remains vital, and networking tends to be based on personal connections rather than electronic communications.
Kenya has a large informal sector, and the majority of Kenyans work in it. Kenya, Köberle explains, is among the world’s leading suppliers of online workers, especially in translation, software development and the creative industries. In this field she can see good approaches and projects that will give even more Kenyans access to online work in future.
In industry, the prime need is for changes in training and education. Curricula are often out-of-date and the available expertise is limited. Although companies frequently use the same technologies as in Europe, a hybrid form of work has emerged consisting of fully automated industrial processes side-by-side with workers handling simple functions. This is due, of course, to the wage structure, which makes manual labour cheaper than the use of modern technologies.
Use the opportunities or get left behind
Looking to the future, Köberle believes that Kenyans’ ability to adapt rapidly will be a great asset. “One of the things we can observe here is leap-frogging over whole stages of development – for example, with the introduction of mobile phones. Hardly anyone here has or needs a landline.”
But the deciding factor will be how the policy environment develops in the years ahead. Köberle regards reform of the education sector as extremely important. It will be essential if the gap between the new demands and the existing skill-sets is to be overcome. Training in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) needs urgent reform, says the economist.
She can definitely see a “window of opportunity” for Kenya and the other sub-Saharan countries. “This is a crucial period that will determine whether Kenya harnesses the benefits of the Fourth Industrial Revolution or gets left behind.”
Spain’s digital future
In Spain, the context is quite different. The country is a leading industrial nation, ranked 26 on the HDI. Per capita income in Spain is almost 19 times higher than in Kenya.
But what about its digital future? Dr Walther von Plettenberg, Director of the German-Spanish Chamber of Commerce, gave us his assessment. He notes that the country is making great progress on digitalisation. “Spain is one of the countries that is achieving the fastest gains in digitalisation in Europe,” he states.
Here, too, it is good infrastructure that puts Spain in a strong position for fulfilling the requirements for digital business – as testified by the EU in its Digital Economy and Society Index. The country has made particularly strong advances in digitalisation in the private sector in recent years.
The German-Spanish Chamber of Commerce recently conducted a survey of how German companies in Spain are faring, which found that the majority of companies are aware of the significance of digitalisation. And what is more: they consider themselves well equipped to meet the new challenges. Very few of them intend to reduce staff numbers as a result of technological developments.
Investment by industry and policy-makers
One of the reasons for German businesses’ optimism in Spain could well be the substantial investments they are making. On average, companies are devoting three per cent of gross revenues to their technical development.
Von Plettenberg sees a striking link between companies’ assessment of their prospects and their current status on digitalisation. “Companies that express satisfaction with their Spanish business are largely the same ones that rate the importance and status of digitalisation highly in their operations.”
And what action would companies like to see from policy-makers? There’s plenty to be done, in von Plettenberg’s view. “As well as improving the broadband network, more support is needed for education and training. And tax breaks in the context of corporate digitalisation would also be beneficial.”
What will this mean for people in future as the companies they work for go digital? Here, too, von Plettenberg shares the view of many experts: “There’s no doubt that many occupational profiles will need adapting.”
What are your expectations for the future? What will your job be like in 20 years’ time? What is your assessment of the situation in your country? And what are you doing now to be ready for the changes ahead? Join the discussion in our Community group “Spotlight on Jobs & Careers”!