Photo by Surian Soosay

This post was written in a collaboration between Cerys Hearsey & Ea Due based on their reflections from the Drucker Forum 2015. The team was also live blogging during the event, see here, here, here and here

Returning humanity to our organisations

One of the ambitions of new management thinking is to make the workplace more human, in order to raise employee engagement, bring customer centricity to the fore and allow individuals to fulfil their passion and purpose at work. This was a key theme of the Drucker Forum 2015.

During the second industrial revolution, we saw the introduction of machines to replace human muscle power, which also raised the value of human effort. The current, in-progress technological revolution threatens to have the opposite effect. Machines are improving faster than people, which means the employment of many citizens might no longer be required, leading to a fundamental shift in the way free market economies operate.

For the last 100 years, we have steadily removed the focus on humans in the workplace, introducing terms such as human resources and human capital, reducing employees to units to be measured and managed. As the automation of knowledge-centric tasks becomes more prevalent within organisations, there is an increased feeling of Tayloristic focus on productivity, above all else. Our organisations have never felt less human.

Three narratives

Last week, the Drucker Forum brought together 500 executives to discuss how we can reclaim our humanity whilst managing in the digital age. Over an intensive two days, we heard from a host of smart people both on- and offstage. People shared their thoughts on the future of society, economies and organisations, as well as the effect they have on people’s lives, often grounded in experiences collected over several decades.

While many grounded and intelligent thoughts were shared, we need to pay attention to the tone and focus that certain conversations come about. Because how we talk about the state of society and the role of new technology has a huge impact on the possible futures we can foresee. JC Spender explained the three types of conversations, or narratives that are commonly used in this space.

Dark future

The first, is the ‘dark view’, where the focal point of discussion is the negative consequences that technology can have on our society. The underlying assumptions are that the technological age will lead to higher unemployment rates, with machines dictating many aspects of work life. Although, of course, this is a possibility, it is only one option. To ensure that a more balanced future is created, we need governments to step up and think more deeply about the social impact. Spender was very clear on the need for ‘business to do what business does best’ and leave the big societal questions to government, but..

Organisational challenges

The second narrative focuses on the organisational challenges that new technology bring to incumbent’s operating models. There are many examples of established businesses losing power as new entrants begin to offer better services or products (e.g. the transition from bricks-and-mortar branches to online banking), or in other cases, the incumbents’ markets fundamentally change too fast for them to respond (e.g. when the hearing aid business was fully disrupted in just 500 days, through the introduction of 3D printing). And in this area too, more human-centred challenges also emerge, such as how increased digital communication can distract management from leading their organisations effectively.

Optimistic pragmatism approach

Finally there is the optimistic narrative, which recognises the perspective that technology is usually a driver for societal and organisational development. Unfortunately, this perspective has a hard time in the face of the anxiety. Closing his talk, JC Spender called for injecting optimism into the discussion of man versus machine, and we agree. Being pro-technology does not automatically make you anti-humanity, as some of the Forum discussion might indicate.

Can technology help reclaim our humanity?

The “dark future” or “challenges” narratives dominated conversations at the Forum, and consequently, polarised the role of technology against a more human workforce, rather than talking about technology and humanity in symbiosis. This led to an overwhelming anti-technology feel to many sessions, and little discussion of emerging opportunities to create new roles and types of organisations not imaginable today. After all, new technologies all the way from fire and cooking through to the printing press and the bicycle have usually given people more freedom, more choices and made them less dependent on those with power over their lives. Perhaps the same is also true this time.

While it is difficult to put fears into words, it is even more difficult to articulate what we are striving towards – the overall inspirational vision to help organisations see new opportunities. As Kevin Roberts pointed out, we are in the age of ideas. Only ideas have the power to change society and move organisations forwards. The toughest part in leveraging the power of ideas is that good ones are the hardest to come by. Many find their imagination restricted to the known and we tend to get stuck in the narratives that focus on challenges and dark futures.

Our collective, single most important task right now is therefore to re-imagine the world we want to live in.

Re-imagining organisations, work & society

Academics have previously referred to the Polanyi paradox (that our tacit knowledge of how the world works often exceeds our explicit understanding) as a reason that automation or the computerisation of tasks will not be sophisticated enough to replace large portions of the workforce in the near future, if ever. We cannot explain most jobs or tasks in a way that can be encoded by a machine. However, advances in technology being made in fields such as the driverless car are fast rendering this argument invalid. It is time to focus not on the threat of technology itself (it is, as Mårten Mickos pointed out, impossible to take technology back), but instead on the more difficult questions, such as the legal, ethical and humanist challenges that lay ahead. Only by co-creating the future with technologists, managers and concerned parties can we ensure that the tasks and jobs that are created by this new technology play to the strengths of humanity, rather than making us redundant.

Once again reaching into the past for lessons, we can take heart from the emergence of the creative class during the previous industrial revolution.

Introducing new capabilities into organisations can reinvent socio-economic structures as well as industries. The creative economy emerged as organisations started to leverage human creativity and knowledge to create new meaning-based forms of products and services. The creative class became known for their knowledge and ability to create new approaches to known problems. Today, we have to find a new, human, driver for change; we need new approaches to unknown problems. We need people with a creativity mindset and technological acumen to envision new roles for workers and various types of organisation.

To drive this new narrative forward, we need a new focus: a socio-technical narrative, which focuses on technology’s affordances and influence on its social surroundings. We need to spread the message that technology is built by humans, and we can shape it as we wish – nothing is yet set in stone. As much as technology can detach humans from each other, it can also support the community and values that we want to see flourish in organisations. Another important tenet for the socio-technical narrative is that technology will always be the servant, not the master, because we create the frameworks and limitations that govern it, although we also need governments, regulations and shared, respected frameworks and conventions.

To pursue such a narrative, we believe that we need three fundamental pillars to create this leap to a future that includes more humanist, symbiotic organisational forms.

Digital fluency

At the Drucker Forum, Tammy Erickson emphasised that whilst machines and algorithms will get more involved in knowledge work, as computer power increases and capabilities broaden, there are tasks and activities that humans will always perform better, such as relational tasks and innovation, or perhaps we will be needed for purely ethical reasons. For Erickson, the most important take-away for technophobes was “don’t fight the machines, but get your organisation and yourself ready for a new reality.” She encouraged leaders and senior managers to be prepared to collaborate with machines in a partnership, like of which most individuals or organisations are not yet ready for.

On an individual level, employees need to develop a higher level of digital fluency, which will enable them to have confidence to be involved in more complex collaborations and understand how machines perform, which must include understanding how we can create true ‘intelligence amplified’ (or what we refer to as augmented human intelligence), rather than allowing artificial intelligence to continue taking away jobs unchecked.

On an organisational level, we need digital fluency to understand the consequences and opportunities for digitalising a company, an offering, or a product. We have the opportunity to reduce our organisations’ restrictions, as imposed by regimented activities such as the planning and budgeting cycles; and already, many organisations are reducing their hierarchies and starting to organise by task. In order for these types of managerial techniques to be successful, we need a new organisational operating system, and a workforce that is technology & digitally savvy to use it.

Enterprise-level technology experiences

Looking inside the organisation, at the tools employees are still forced to use, it is clear that a revolution in enterprise-class technology cannot come soon enough! The organisation requires a new class of digital tools that support employees, managers and leaders to work together in new ways. This class of technology (the forerunners of which, are probably the enterprise apps in development by partnerships like IBM and Apple) will also need to cater for new business models in which collaborations between internal teams, external teams and those that sit in the liminal space between, might be in almost constant collaboration. Designed to empower employees through simple agile solutions aimed at solving complex business problems, these apps will, over time, also allow organisations to leverage the exciting new data sets available through wearable technologies, social graph insights from collaboration platforms and customer data from social media.

Needing minimal training, and using intuitive design pioneered in consumer apps, this can help level the playing field for global companies seeking to empower their workforce. The initial focus for such apps was to be found in human-centric fields of change management and innovation. As Clay Shirky reminds us: “When the technology gets boring, communication can become interesting”, and these apps are designed to ensure that the technology becomes nothing more than an enabler for the humans that use it. Examples launched by the Apple/IBM partnership to date include a Sales Assist app, leveraging key technological trends including iBeacon, assisted selling, mobile POS and customer support to allow physical retail establishments to create a more personalised experience. Although all of these elements can already be leveraged by tech-savvy businesses, wrapping them in an Apple-designed package makes them all the more game-changing and empowering for organisations.

Innovate & experiment

Improved digital fluency and enterprise-level technology will not be enough on their own. We need lighthouse organisations to show how we can combine them to create new resilient organisational forms that fit the new vision, two of which we encountered at the Forum. Haier is one of the world’s largest white goods manufacturers. Haier’s CEO, Ruimin Zhang, has transformed the organisation several times in the past 30 years, each time introducing new, radical management techniques to increase customer centricity, employee engagement and producing an evolution of the company that enabled it to thrive. Zhang talked about their current endeavour Rendanheyi 2.0, with which Haier will leverage internet technology to decentralise the organisation, to become a networked enterprise. At the highest level, this transformation is about changing the company’s organisational structure to deliver Zhang’s vision of Haier as a network of highly entrepreneurial units, loosely joined. This focus on the ‘softer side’ of organisational development was also shared by Jim Keane, President and CEO of Steelcase, who predicted that successful leaders of tomorrow are curators of culture and people who can make work meaningful for employees.

From re-imagination to action

We hope that these reflections highlight why establishing a positive socio-technical narrative is important for re-imagining our society with more humanity, and in addition to show that being pro-technology does not mean that you have to also be anti-humanity. However, re-imaging is still not enough if we are to reclaim humanity.

We also have to educate and mobilise people with socio-technical expertise, as we saw with the rise of the creative economy. Doing so requires action from different arenas: improving individuals and organisations’ digital fluency; building conscious apps and software products that can help break the legacy of the industrial age and create new behaviours; and most importantly, to develop a maker culture in organisations, that stimulates more innovation and experimentation.

To do this, we also need deep thinkers, like the people who participated at the Drucker Forum, to engage and work with coders and technologist to develop a movement for a new future shaped by the values important to us all. We want to invigorate this movement by bringing together people, who believe in a positive narrative, to work together on the crucial issues that our society is facing today. We are working on a project dedicated to exactly this – until then please reach out to us on if you are interested in being involved.