Most of us believe we’re living in an era of technology. Artificial intelligence, robotics, blockchains, and IoT are all here. They’re a given in our lives. But machines and technology are just tools whizzing through automated, repetitive, and standardized tasks. Though these amazing technological capabilities have become the norm, they are ushering in a new era where it is humans that make the key difference in enterprises, society, and the economy.
We’re moving from the Technology Era to the Human Era.
The old paradigm of technology
We’re all captivated by technological capability. Most of today’s executives believe technology is yet another must-have tool to acquire, and they’re closely watching what the competition is doing to keep up. However, the idea that implementing technology, adding software, or purchasing better data should simply follow a “plug-and-play” approach is misguided. That’s the old paradigm.
Technology isn’t enough
Merely adopting more technology isn’t enough to survive as a competitive enterprise. What most companies miss is that becoming a forward-thinking company requires us to become more human, not less. The success of becoming a leader in this new era doesn’t come from focusing on tech—but rather on people. Consider a recent statement by Nick Drake, senior vice president of Digital T-Mobile: “If you make [positive human experience] your primary metric, everything falls into place.”
Uniquely human strengths are needed to leverage technological computational powers. Today’s leaders need to understand how to hire the best talent and develop onboarding protocols that seamlessly absorb that talent into an innovative and inclusive culture. Successful leaders create a culture of innovation that brings the best from its people. They build trust in an organization’s AI systems by verifying and “looking under the hood” of algorithms. They create a symbiosis between people and technology that allows everyone to thrive.
Why leading tech companies are human-centric
This human-centric approach is exemplified by leading technology companies, including Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and LinkedIn. These companies understand they must transform the way they do business in a way that has nothing to do with technology. The issue isn’t whether machines will replace humans. It’s about how to create a business model in which machines and humans complement each other.
Machines expertly handle repetitive and automated tasks and will always be faster and more precise. However, uniquely human skills—creativity, innovation, adaptability, empathy, integrity, and imagination—are becoming increasingly imperative to an organization’s success.
These skills cannot be “outsourced” or “botsourced” to machines. These human skills are needed to bridge the gap between technology and people, and to utilize machines in the best way to serve customers, coworkers, suppliers, and stakeholders. Without a new business model, one that’s focused on cultivating human talent and authentic culture, the human element of the organization becomes an appendage to technology and quickly atrophies.
There are five broad maneuvers to undertake in making this transition:
- Broaden your organization’s focus. The first step is broadening the single-minded focus on financial performance to include intentionality and purpose. Yes, financial performance and shareholder value will always be important. The difference here is that creating human-centered, technology-powered organizations will drive financial performance.
Having a purpose in society, one that’s beyond mere profit, is a critical element of success. Millennial talent tends to seek out work environments that are dedicated to a higher purpose. It’s hard to inspire a workforce to innovation, creativity, and engagement by dangling financial payoffs. The pursuit of profit does not inspire human flourishing, creativity, or authentic care. It will not suffice in this new era where greater human capabilities are needed.
- Articulate your purpose. Business leaders should be able to clearly articulate their company’s purpose in the world and act with integrity. This means conforming to principle and having fidelity to the truth. In the age of information, the truth feels ever harder to come by. We are swimming in data, and yet we don’t always know which way is up. Companies that tell the truth when there is a temptation to lie will be rewarded by the cultivation of public trust. Companies that lie will be prone to scandals and failed cover-ups. How leaders react, and whether they demonstrate integrity, will determine whether they get to keep their jobs.
- Move from contractual to meaningful relationships. The quality of engagement with stakeholders—your customers, employees, and suppliers—depends upon the commitment to form meaningful human connections.
As machines and humans work to adapt in real-time to customer and environmental demands, agility and flexibility will be in high demand. This will require a shift from rigid, functional procedures to systems thinking, from silos to flexible organizational structures, from strict hierarchies to flatter organizations and cross-functional integrated teams. We cannot get caught up in official job titles. We simply need to perform as needed, playing to our individual strengths, responding to and communicating our real needs to each other in real-time.
- Create a virtual presence. Organizations also need to shift away from requiring a physical presence in a brick-and-mortar office environment to flexible, virtual options. If your goal is to enhance creativity and productivity in service of your company’s mission, then it’s antithetical to the business mission to require employees to routinely subject themselves to unpleasant work conditions. At least be willing to shift from traditional offices to work environments that promote comfort. What matters is performance, not being in a cubicle.
If you only trust your staff to work when they are literally under direct supervision and surveillance in an office setting away from home, you have trust issues. Find other performance metrics so they can work wherever it suits them. Unless you are dealing in sensitive materials that require a controlled environment (anything from protected health information to hazardous substances), let your teams work from wherever. Or make your office better than anywhere else they might rather be.
Eight-hour workdays in a physical office should be replaced with far more pleasant arrangements that support human collaborative relationships and flourishing. Let’s replace the dreaded Monday morning commute with something more humane, efficient, and productive. That means virtual presence, collaboration in both physical and virtual teams, and a work structure that promotes the best in people.
Consider Google, which lets employees take naps and work at their own pace in a highly comfortable, aesthetically pleasing environment. Treat people like humans instead of commodities. You’ll be surprised at the results.
- Shift to aspirational metrics. The last step is a shift from traditional productivity measures to aspirational metrics that incentivize innovation and creativity. In order to encourage human workers to exercise those uniquely human skills (as more and more cognitive work is “botsourced”), we need to change our performance metrics. The old management adage “You cannot manage what you do not measure” needs to go. Managing human creativity, caring, emotional intelligence, ethical convictions, and innovation will require us to use different measures of performance, not just work hours performed or cost reductions achieved.
The idea that “technology will fix things” is misguided. Technology cannot fix bad processes, poor management practices, or failing employee morale. Without people, there is no innovation, no strategy, no connections with customers. The uniquely human skills of creativity, innovation, adaptability, empathy, integrity, and imagination are becoming increasingly critical to success, and these skills cannot be taken over by machines.
This new era is about empowering human flourishing, emotional connections, and authenticity. It is the Human Era. We just have to be ready.