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Business slow to automate

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While the majority of organisations worldwide are planning to automate business practices, with some jobs being discontinued as a result, less than a third of SA businesses are considering this course of action.

This is according to a new Grant Thornton International Business Report which researched the scale of technology’s influence on business.  The report highlighted that 56% of firms globally, and 31% of SA companies, are already automating or may do so in the coming 12 months. 

“The local situation is different for many reasons – including the high number of unskilled people, making it difficult for employees to operate more advanced machines or computers,” says Michiel Jonker, director: IT Advisory at Grant Thornton Johannesburg.

The Grant Thornton International Business Report (IBR) provides insight into the views and expectations of more than 10,000 businesses per year across 36 economies worldwide.  Research for this IBR Automation report is drawn from datasurveying 2,571 executives in 36 economies during February 2015.

Jonker adds that a failing government education system is not preparing young people for jobs in the 21st century, which is also referred to as the ‘second machine age’ and this is a major cause of the unacceptably high percentage of unskilled labour in this country.  Many matriculants cannot be considered for skilled employment, not to mention tertiary education, after school because of the poor quality education system in South Africa (e.g. low standards and pass rates).   

“Even if unskilled people get jobs, they are only trained to work in a specific sector,” he continues.  “If there are no longer any jobs in agriculture, for example, workers cannot simply move to the secondary sector as they do not have the required skills.  Unlike in the western world, where employees’ education background is a strong foundation, enabling them to move more easily between sectors, in SA the majority of workers are simply unable to jump from one sector to another – hence the occurrence of structural unemployment in South Africa.”

Jonker explains that structural unemployment is when unemployment for individuals lasts longer than usual due to issues in an economy, or a lack of skills across various industries which prevent workers from ‘cross trading’ their abilities. It’s when there’s a fundamental ‘mismatch’ between the skills which workers have vs those required and urgently needed in an economy or country.

Commenting on the IBR report, Steven Perkins, global leader for technology at Grant Thornton International, said: “In this digital age, businesses are looking to technology at an ever-increasing pace. Post-financial crisis, firms continue to strive for greater efficiency and better productivity. But fifty years on from PCs going into mass production, costs of capital are low while labour costs increase. As businesses consider whether to invest in staff or machines, for many, the latter is becoming the more cost-effective option.”

Despite this, the research reveals that 66% of SA businesses are not considering automating any business functions in the next 12 months, while only 3% might consider this.

“But automation will have to be introduced if we are to be globally competitive,” says Jonker.  “And there are several factors that will start driving automation here at home.  We face extraordinarily high labour costs, very low productivity and – compared to other countries, including the BRIC countries – entry salaries of young people are extremely high.

 “In addition, if we want to compete globally, we will have to play according to global rules. Productivity is extremely important for competition, which means that we have no choice but to automate.”

He notes that capitalism continues to demand maximisation of process, increasing output and decreasing input, all benefits offered by automation.

Jonker also affirms that there is a school of thought with a strong argument for rapid adoption of technology, as countries that do so benefit from higher per capita income than those that don’t.

“The Harvard School of Business revealed in a series of research papers that the rate at which nations adopted new tools hundreds of years ago strongly affected whether those nations are rich or poor today,’ said Jonker (Report by Associate Professor Diego A. Comin and colleagues).

“Technology is definitely an initiator for permanent change in society,” says Jonker.   “Research conducted by the World Bank entitled “Building broadband: Strategies and policies for the developing world” claims that a 10% increase in broadband penetration could raise GDP growth by 1 to 2% in low- and middle-income countries – a figure which is more than the impact which broadband penetration would have in high-income countries.”

Jonker emphasises that although this statistic is very much debated by different parties, and that it certainly differs from country to country, we cannot escape the fact that technology is causing change and bolstering globalisation – causing further problems for the South African economy and labourers with their low productivity (as globalisation means global competition, placing pressure on the labour market to be more productive).

Grant Thornton’s IBR findings also suggest that opportunities will arise for workers to assume new roles and responsibilities created by an increased use of technology. Globally over half of automating firms (54%) expect to redeploy workers in other areas, with 28% saying that workers will be trained to operate new machinery.

In South Africa, the IBR research revealed that 44% of firms that have automated, or intend to, said their people would be trained to use the new machines, while 32% expected automation to lead to a reduction in their organisation’s head count.

Jonker says the world will soon see new jobs that do not exist today and that automation will make people become redundant faster.

“We’re already seeing this in the IT environment where the ‘cloud’ is taking away certain traditional IT jobs,” he says.

“SA needs to accept that automation is going to happen, and that innovation will be key for economic growth.  We need to start encouraging our young people to consider jobs that cannot be replaced by automation.  They must design those robots, rather than going into occupations that will be replaced by robots.   For example, the introduction of more automation into the world is going to unleash many ‘dark forces’ that will exploit the enhanced level of system and data integration which will arise between millions of different parties, companies and systems. There is already a huge shortage of cybersecurity experts globally, and the upcoming generation will have to fill this new gap, especially if they want to live in a relatively safe world.

“Chances are extraordinarily high that it will be the repetitive (routine), uncreative jobs which will be automated. Certain parts of the world have already seen a decline in routine manual labour as well as cognitive jobs. It is only non-routine manual and cognitive jobs that are safe, as robots are not good at non-precision tasks – but only for now,” Jonker concludes.

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AppDate: Shedding light in our times of darkness

SEAN BACHER’S app roundup highlights two load-shedding apps, along with South AfriCAM, NBA 2K Mobile, Virgin Mobile’s Spot 3.0 and SwiftKey.

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Load Shedding Notifier

With all the uncertainty about when South Africans will next be plunged into darkness by Eskom, the Load Shedding Notifier tries its best to keep up with Eskom’s schedule. The app is very simple to use. Download it, type an area in and click the save button. The app automatically tells you what load shedding stage Eskom is on, the times you can expect to start lighting candles and for how long to burn them.

Multiple areas can be added and one can switch between the different stages to see how each one will affect a certain area.

A grid status is also displayed, showing how strained the country’s electrical network is.

Platform: Android and iOS

Expect to pay: A free download

Stockists: Visit the store linked to your device

EskomSePush Load Shedding App

EskomSePush does much the same as the Load Shedding Notifier, but allows multiple cities to be tracked. However, they may just want to rethink the name of the app if they want wider respectability.

Platform: Android and iOS

Expect to pay: A free download

Stockists: Visit the store linked to your device

South AfriCAM

South AfriCAM enables users to add branded stickers and frames from popular lifestyle magazine titles to their posts, including Huisgenoot, YOU, Drum, Move!, TRUE LOVE, Women’s Health and Men’s Health. 

In the process, they can earn JETPoints for their social influence: through the app’s built-in JET8 social currency, users are rewarded for their engagement. For every in-app like, comment, and share, users earn JETPoints, which can be used to redeem products online or over the counter across more than 2 500 retail stores in South Africa. Users are additionally awarded JETPoints for cross-posting onto external social media networks.

Platform: Android and iOS

Expect to pay: A free download

Stockists: Visit the store linked to your device

Click here to read about console quality graphics on a mobile phone, Virgin Money payments made easier, and an app that redesigns the keyboard.

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Drones to drive
Western Cape agritech

Aerobotics is set to change how farmers treat their crops by using drones and machine learning, writes BRYAN TURNER.

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The Western Cape is poised to be a hotbed of innovation in the agritech sector, with drone piloting set to playing a major role in in the tech start-up scene.

This is the view of Tim Willis, chief operating officer of pioneering drone company Aerobotics, a Cape Town drone company recognised as a world leader in agritech.

“Drone piloting is a key skill that feeds into the value chain of the budding 4th Industrial Revolution,” said Willis. “Cape Town and the Western Cape is uniquely positioned to be the melting pot for innovation in the agritech sector, as a leading agricultural exporter and a hub for creative tech start-ups.”

He was speaking at AeroCon, a drone expo organised by Aerobotics and held in Johannesburg this week aimed at providing opportunities for drone pilots to apply their skills in South Africa, and to show how drones are being used to collect data on crops. 

The event was supported by the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA), Wesgro, PROMMAC, MicaSense, and Rectron, among other

“We’re starting to sign up farmers across the country,” said Willis. “It’s exciting because farmers are starting to use drone technology on their farms. When a farmer wants a drone flown, they want it flown [now] so it’s important for us to capture that data as quickly as possible to show that drones are fast and effective.”

According to aerobotics, drone technology can help farmers reduce pesticide use on their crops by up to 30%. The result is environmentally friendly farming, reducing stressed crops and a healthier harvest. 

“We use aerial imagery from drones to recreate a 3D model of every single tree on a farmer’s orchard,” said Willis. “We’ve done this for millions of trees and it starts to give the farmers metrics of what they’re doing. We provide them with the health of the trees, the height, the volume, the canopy area, which enable the farms to make decisions on what to do next.”

Click here to read more about AeroCon and what it offers to those wanting to get into the drone industry.

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