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Data Shows COVID-19 Accelerates Digital Transformation of Frontline Workers

Once digital backwaters, essential industries (including manufacturing, distribution, and transportation) are suddenly at the forefront of digital transformation.

Anyone who went to the supermarket during the pandemic's early-onset only to find empty shelves can understand how COVID-19 exposed cracks in our global supply chain. It was months before some degree of normality was restored, enabling anyone to purchase household essentials with regularity. This comeback was in part due to COVID-19 having dramatically accelerated the digital transformation of these essential industries -- from manufacturing to distribution to transportation.

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Many industries that employ frontline workers have historically been overlooked by technology companies, oftentimes due to the operational complexity and physical risks brought on by these types of work environments. This has caused a gap when it comes to available technologies suitable for these frontline workers, such as strong connectivity, real-time data, or mobile-optimized workflows. Although organizations in these industries have been digitizing over the years, the pandemic turbocharged this transformation. In fact, according to a recent McKinsey & Company survey, organizations have accelerated the digitalization of their customer interactions, supply chain interactions, and core internal operations by three to four years, and acted 20 to 25 times faster than expected in enacting these changes.

During the time much of the world was locked down, essential services such as food and beverage distribution and last-mile delivery were put into overdrive. Many of these organizations have a large field workforce that needs to be coordinated. They manage complex logistics that require precision, operate physical assets with real-time insights, and navigate industry-specific workflows. All of this, combined with massive spikes in demand, translated to technology adoption and the need to gain an edge through actionable data.

To further understand this technology acceleration sparked by the pandemic, we recently analyzed a sample cohort of 2,700 customers from January 2020 to March 2021. In this analysis, these customers showed an 80 percent increase in API pings to our Connected Operations Platform, signaling that organizations are becoming more sophisticated in their use of technology and data. In other words, businesses are looking for new ways to break down data silos, customize their tech stack, and boost productivity by automatically syncing data and workflows. They have moved beyond simply collecting data to use within a single system and are increasingly connecting systems across their organization to empower other teams and digitize previously manual processes.

One example of this is TCI Transportation, a transportation and logistics company with more than 2,000 trucks, tractors, and trailers, and nearly 1,000 employees. They used our API integration with McLeod LoadMaster to automate route assignment and tracking, transforming their day-to-day operations through digitalization. According to Andy Figueroa, director of quality assurance at TCI, "With [this integration], our dispatchers don't have to spend their days manually processing orders. It has freed up their time to focus on ensuring their drivers are running efficiently."

Although fleet operations have been going through a digital transformation for years, the recent federal electronic logging device (ELD) mandate from 2019 has continued to fuel digitalization in fleet operations. Many of our customers have increasingly adopted dashboard cameras and driver coaching tools, making video-based telematics the "new normal." In addition, many of these organizations need to track equipment and monitor warehouses, particularly during the pandemic, accelerating the need for remote visibility across all areas of operations and an increased proliferation of internet of things (IoT) connectivity.

In that same recent analysis, we looked at another cohort of 1,400 customers in the transportation and warehousing industry and found that 20 percent expanded their connected operations footprint by growing their use of our cloud solutions across three or more distinct areas -- going beyond vehicle telematics into driver safety, site security, equipment monitoring, and more.

In addition, from January 2020 to March 2021, we also saw an 18 percent increase in mobile app usage and 45 percent increase in digital document submissions for a cohort of 6,500 customers we analyzed. This suggests the pandemic was a key driver in accelerating adoption of these tools by both commercial drivers and back-office administrators, providing a much-needed increase in productivity and more streamlined operations.

One example of this is Western Concrete Pumping (WCP), one of the nation's largest concrete pumping companies. They have increasingly relied on mobile workflows to communicate with drivers during the pandemic. "Before COVID-19, we used to travel to each branch office and train operators in person," said Carol Heinz, fleet administrative assistant at WCP. "[Now,] we can be more confident that our drivers are completing the right tasks in the right sequence, even now that we're working remotely."

We believe that the world of industrial operations is at the precipice of a massive wave of digital transformation. Artificial intelligence, IoT connectivity, cloud computing, and advances in camera technology have been key drivers in the race towards digital transformation for frontline workers and their respective industries. This accelerated digital transformation, sparked by the pandemic, will put industrial operations at the forefront of some exciting innovations, many of which are already starting to take hold.

About the Author

Ali Akhtar is the head of big data and machine learning at Samsara where, he oversees the machine learning/computer vision, data science, data engineering, and data analytics teams. You can reach the author via LinkedIn.

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