As part of a panel of speakers here in Kuala Lumpur this morning, I was at the core of discussions surrounding digitisation. It’s a theme I have covered extensively in the last 18 months, though the topic I was tasked with this morning was a perhaps more onerous strand of debate – e-commerce.
First impressions of e-commerce are mixed, often a combination of fear and anticipation.
That’s because the industrial gases business is still very traditional in how it operates, based upon strong cultural and organisational paradigms. It’s still very customer-facing and local in nature. As a result, e-commerce essentially changes that business model, that culture, within our industry. It’s essentially a paradigm shift – and that can create confusion, anxiety, even fear.
But it also engenders opportunity. My presentation this morning attempted to emphasise that sense of opportunity for the gases industry. It described how there is already more happening in this field than we might give the industry credit for, but how very far there is still to go and, therefore, how huge the opportunities could be for our industry.
Successful e-commerce models could reduce costs, improve returns, and capture new windows of growth. Productivity gains will be a significant contributor to this. Today’s companies can’t expect to keep delivering above-market returns by continuing on the same path, because that path has already been forged, to a large extent, by various advances in productivity. Many traditional productivity levers have or will become exhausted. Digitisation, whether that is in terms of e-commerce, remote monitoring of plants or automation of processes, can enable the next step change in productivity and financial performance.
This was essentially the message of my fellow panellists, as we heard about the great strides forward that have been made in asset tracking and management, advances that continue to be made as we speak, and the huge monitoring centres that Tier One players like Air Liquide are rolling out across the globe and using to great effect in leveraging data collection and analysis.
It was also the subject of many conversations off-stage, again amongst my panellists and I, but also in talks around promotional booths and corridors here at the conference. There’s a sense of anticipation for the digitised gases industry of the future, and the agility both that it brings and that it will require for companies to get ahead of the curve.
Because the feeling is, this is happening. Digitisation is in progress across the industry, across the supply chain, and across the world. It would be easy to lose sight of that or even overlook the significance of this trend and how fast it is accelerating – but my humble take is that if you’re not with the curve, you’re behind it.