Imagine headlines like “Renowned surgeon shares surgery techniques with rural South African doctors”, “Gold miners celebrate 300 incident-free days” and “South African call centre beats Indian competition to procure large international contract”. The stuff of fiction? Perhaps not.
The concept of leapfrogging has become a major strategy in developing countries wanting to avoid playing catch-up – especially in the field of education.
It means adopting technologies that could accelerate development by passing over inferior, less efficient ones and moving directly to more advanced technologies, which grants a significant innovative advantage.
Leapfrogging requires new approaches to learning.
Bearing this in mind, early adopters in South Africa are eagerly awaiting Google Glass, the hi-tech eyewear that promises to take mobile computing into a new era, set to hit our shores by the end of the year.
Could local adoption of this disruptive technology leapfrog education in a country that faces dire challenges in how its people work and learn?
With a tiny screen above the right eye and operated through a touch pad and voice commands, Glass has a camera, able to take photos and video, as well as bluetooth and wifi internet connectivity.
Some local commentators, such as Arthur Goldstuck, believe that Google Glass “does not make much sense as an enhancement of the functionality of a cellphone, and so is unlikely to be taken up by consumers any time soon”.
But research firm Gartner has a more upbeat outlook, suggesting that companies which equip their staff with smart glasses could save billions of rands over the next few years.
We speculated about ways in which Glass could inform educational strategies to benefit South Africans.
South Africa is becoming an increasingly more attractive business process outsourcing (BPO) and offshoring destination.
In the Western Cape alone there is an estimated 38 000 jobs in the sector, contributing about R8 billion to the province’s annual gross domestic product.
But this research, conducted by BPeSA, also suggests that there might not be enough skilled resources available to fill this need.
Being able to access information quickly is one of Glass’s most powerful functions.
One area in which this functionality can enhance performance is in the contact centre space, where agents require immediate access to diverse sets of information while talking to clients.
Linking their Glass to a corporate server that contains the most appropriate answers or to team leaders who are viewing the same call and providing guidance during escalations, can improve customer service satisfaction and increase efficiencies in first call resolution and call handling volumes.
Such performance enablement will not only benefit skills growth but may also give local BPOs an advantage.
Artisans are in great demand in South Africa.
The latest edition of Manpower Group’s yearly SA Talent Shortage Survey stated: “The lack of technical competencies paired with the rampant skills shortages remains a problem for local employers, across various industries.”
The skills shortage is widely regarded as a key obstacle to economic growth and creation.
Asked why they had difficulties filling jobs, 35 percent quoted technical competencies as a challenge.
In a country that is hungry for skills development of every kind, this functionality is filled with promise.
With its ability to capture photos and videos hands-free using a voice command there is an array of application possibilities.
Virtual and geographically distributed organisations are a growing reality that makes it difficult to train sales teams.
Consider having a distributed audience of sales people able to watch a client’s reactions as a senior sales person delivers a pitch.
Previously, setting this up would have been complex and intrusive, the presence of visible cameras altering the clients’ natural reactions.
Now a new sales force may be trained without incurring the travel and accommodation costs associated with having them follow around a senior.
This principle can similarly be applied for training in surgical procedures, or any specialist skill from welding to oil rig operation.
Glass also shows potential in language translation.
With time, it will be able to translate spoken language into real-time subtitles in a language of the user’s choice, eliminating language barriers.
When your country has 11 official languages, imagine the potential time and cost-saving benefits, from a government official assisting a foreign national to the improved efficiency of a court translator – savings that could be ploughed back into government departments.
This also means that, if cleverly designed, a single piece of learning could be cost-effectively re-used and distributed to large, multi-language target audience groups.
It’s an utopian ideal, but consider the benefit this might provide to pupils who still struggle with receiving foundational training in a second – even third – language.
Safety and efficiency
Imagine the implications for mining, construction, manufacturing and other areas where health and safety is critical.
Equipped with Glass, employees may be restricted from moving into work areas unless they have watched a short health and safety induction video, and have read and confirmed acceptance of a disclaimer – which is recorded and stored in a central repository.
Proceeding to their work area, they may well continue to use Glass by calling up blueprints to assist in their checking of faulty equipment.
Firms could potentially save millions of rands by better protecting their employees in life-threatening environments, while financial support for a solution like this no longer needs to come from training budgets alone, but may comfortably sit in operational budgets.
In addition, South Africa wants to stimulate its economy.
Is Glass a potential differentiator? Having factory assembly line workers wear Glass (with video enabled and recording), management will know when employees are exhausted and start making mistakes, and which units are defective.
Reductions in man hours lost and stopping costly recalls of defective products are only two of the potential benefits.
As management shares the virtual vision of their employees’ Google Glass, they might notice task efficiencies that are not optimal.
This will be the cue to ask the training department to intervene with optimisation training.
Initially, Google Glasses will be expensive – it is estimated they will sell for about R12 500 at first.
This is a significant capital layout for a company that wants to issue all its employees with a unit.
But if this means, especially in the case of distributed organisations, that you could do away with dedicated training venues and the associated cost of travel and accommodation for employees undergoing training, combined with the loss in productivity while they are away from doing what they were hired to do, exploring the cost implication becomes more compelling.
Add to that the increased revenue as a result of improved performance, the cut in costs brought on by labour action, product recalls or litigation arising from employees sustaining on-the-job injuries, and the sum becomes even more interesting.
That the application of Glass and related technologies will require a change in thinking is a given.
While we can only speculate whether it is to remain mere hype or whether it will provide a viable future platform for disruptive educational enablement, it certainly presents an exciting new avenue to explore.
Jannie Malan is the human performance relationship leader at IQBusiness.