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Recently published in International Cement Review, December, 2016

Meeting the Workforce Demands of the Cement Industry
How Technology is Reducing Costs and Helping Solve HR Complexities

By Stefan Soeller, Solution Management Lead, IBU Mill Products & Mining, SAP

Remember when job training meant sitting in a classroom following along as an instructor walked you through a 3-inch thick compliance or procedural manual? Fortunately, those days are over. Traditional training has been transformed by the digital economy into an active, continuous learning activity. Supported by technology advancements, new learning strategies are helping to attract and support flexible workforces and empowering employees to make insightful decisions. For these reasons, workforce management solutions are becoming critical components in many aspects of a cement company including improving productivity, compliance, new employee onboarding, change management, safety and quality. Yet, we are only just beginning to understand the transformative benefits of using technology to help address human resource issues. In the words of FunderMax CIO, Hartwig Schwarzlmueller, “The further you go with automation, the more qualifications the people need. It isn’t something you can achieve from one year to the next; we’ll have a lot to do for many years to come.”

Similar to other manufacturing industries, many cement companies have a disconnection between understanding the importance of new learning technologies and investing in them. During the most recent global recession, they had other priorities.  In many areas of the world, cement is a commodity business and pressure to reduce costs was a key goal for most companies.  Yet, as technology applications for human resources have advanced, it is becoming clear that investing in learning management solutions can positively impact profitability.  According to a recent article, HR Magazine found that an investment as low as $1500 per employee in training, increases profit margins by 24% on average. The benefits are so compelling, in fact, that 84% of CEOs recently interviewed by PwC intend to make workforce investment a priority.

Using Technology to Solve HR Challenges

In this era of fast-paced business innovation, the world is getting smarter and more connected. Yet, along with this data-driven environment comes complexity, especially in the workforce, which can actually slow down progress. Without access to the right information at the right time, people end up working harder but accomplishing less.   Fortunately, technology solutions have evolved to address some of the primary HR challenges facing the cement industry.

One of the most talked about issues in manufacturing is changing workforce demographics.  By 2020 over 50% of the workforce will be millennials (PwC, Millennials at Work).The implications of this change is two-fold. First, older workers are retiring, taking with them valuable knowledge gained from years of on-the-job experience.  Second, the skills, motivations and needs of tech-savvy millennials are different than previous generations, requiring new strategies for attracting and retaining top talent.

Attracting and Hiring Talent

The next generation of workers have spent their entire lives immersed in technology. They are attracted to companies that offer technology applications, which mimic their personal lives. To appeal to younger workers, companies need to offer tools that support ad-hoc collaboration independent of boundaries and facilitate resource sharing. Example of these tools include social media, online chat rooms, bulletin boards, instant messaging and more.

Another challenge is staffing for the cement industry is its need for diverse workforces, which often include a combination of internal and external workers, full-time and part-time employed, highly qualified experts and interns. These complex workforces provide important flexibility, allowing companies to cost-effectively deploy talent when and where it is needed most. However, despite the complexity, HR managers still must ensure that everyone, regardless of employment status, is compliant with constantly changing regulations including country labor laws, visas and benefits. Consequently, companies need an integrated human capital management system that supports varied country requirements and can store, access and deliver up-to-date data on every employee at all times.

On-Boarding Talent

In the digital economy, job requirements are changing fast. With nearly every asset now equipped with data-transmitting sensors, knowing how to access, analyze and use data to make decisions is key. Some processes that used be to be performed manually, such as procurement, inventory management, invoicing and payment processing, now are handled using real-time analytics and rule-based decision making. Also, technology is replacing some jobs completely. For example, drones are being used to inspect assets in remote locations, and some companies are developing completely unmanned operations featuring autonomous truck fleets and automated drilling systems.

While it may be possible to find workers with the exact right skills sets, it is more likely that organizations will need to provide them with the knowledge necessary to do the job. In its 18th Annual Global CEO Survey, PwC found that 73% of CEOs believe the lack of employees with key technical skills is a threat to their company’s growth. Employees used to manually handling assets or conducting transactions must be transformed into “knowledge” workers who can monitor data dashboards, interpret exceptions and act strategically.

From a corporate perspective, data-based systems allow managers to assess and track the effectiveness of learning programs. Rather than simply recording if a program was complete, data analysis allows managers to correlate performance back to the training in order to measure its effectiveness and be able to tailor future trainings to improve outcomes.

Retaining Talent

Of course, learning doesn’t end once someone has been hired and on-boarded.  Continuous learning is a key aspect of retaining talent.  Mobile devices and related applications are being used in the cement industry to give workers easy access to additional training and share information when it is needed most. The Pew Research Center reported that 44% of 18-29 year old smartphone owners have consumed educational content on their phone; and 34% have used their phone to apply for a job. While there are many examples of using mobile devices in the field, here are a couple real-world scenarios:

  • An employee, noticing an oil leak at a cement pump, takes a picture with a mobile device and uploads it with additional information into the company maintenance application. The type of pump is instantly identified via the location specific data submitted with the picture and a list of related information is provided such as past issue with the pump, 3D guided procedures on how to repair the leak, real-time inventory for replacement parts, and compliance regulations. The maintenance worker can watch a video on how to solve the issue, then order parts through the mobile device and schedule a follow-up. All information related to the incident is captured in real-time and stored for future analysis.

  • A manager monitoring the operation of a kiln is notified through sensor data of unusually high levels of vibration within the heating fan. The manager immediately accesses the operational schedule of the asset, identifies a window of time in which it will not be utilized, and schedules a visual inspection of the kiln during the available “off-time.” This avoids unscheduled down-time or interruptions in production.

Mobile learning is proving to be an effective and efficient method for keeping workers updated in a constantly changing business environment. A survey by the Brandon Hall Group found that 73% of organizations are using mobile learning in some form and 87% plan to increase their use of mobile in the next year.

Protecting Talent

Worker safety is always a top concern, especially for companies in manufacturing industries. Fortunately, this area has also been made easier by technology. Digitalization of safety systems and deployment of wearable devices embedded with sensors has made tracking and evacuations much fast. For instance, workers at plants and quarries can wear bionic jackets containing safety sensors that allow companies to track the physical location of people, as well as monitor environmental factors such as light, sound and air quality. Reducing risk also requires putting important occupational health information in the hands of decision makers at the right time, in the right place. Types of data to be accessed and used for prevention management include permits, safety statistics, incident and accident logs, and inspection information.

Managing Talent

In addition to attracting, retaining and protecting a global workforce, technology also provides solutions for ongoing HR management. This is especially important in the cement industry, where companies may be managing teams deployed in mining locations or plants around the world. Company-wide data analytics combined with an intuitive dashboard provide executives with “big picture” insights and real-time measurement of key performance indicators.  This data is helpful in identifying overall patterns, trends and best practices, which can then be deployed in other areas for optimal results. For example, if a production plant has a higher number of safety incident on average than other sites, HR managers can drill down into that location’s training procedures and work with the local plant managers to ensure the right methods are being used. Additionally, HR-specific technology solutions are being used to automate scheduling and budgeting and provide data-based insights for planning. For example, HR executives can view headcount by department and by location, or look at the projected quarterly headcount plan and cost.

To compete in the digital economy, cement manufactures need to invest in digital technologies and tools that are congruent with their strategy and support workforce initiatives. The right HR tools and technologies can create a rich environment for innovation by empowering workers to make decisions in the context of overall operations and industry trends. In doing so, human resource programs can help improve plant productivity, company profitability and long-term success. Mangalam Cement Limited, a wing of B.K. Birla Group, produces 43, 53, and PPC grades of cement and provides an excellent example of a company already improving operational efficiencies with an integrated platform across various departments. “With a digital core to manage day-to-day business operations and future growth strategy, we look forward to efficiency, productivity and market-share gains,” states Yaswant Mishra, President (Corporate) and CFO, Mangalam Cement Limited (Mangalam Cement, SAP).