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August 19, 2015

Humans are underrated – Technology can’t do it all

Ian's Morning Musing image

Last week, I posed the possibility of a future that could position HR at the intersection between technology and talent. The reaction by some of my colleagues indicates that this is indeed a stretch because it means HR must be at the cutting-edge of technology. Since new applications are being launched daily, this would be no easy feat.

Did you know, for example, that know-how exists for Google glasses to instantly interpret another person’s emotions by studying his/her facial expressions? So, beware of an interviewee wearing Google glasses.

But joking aside, technologies like this will profoundly change our workplaces. It occurs to me that when technology first replaced manual labour, it made sense, and was relatively unnerving. However, knowing that today’s technology can use vast amounts of knowledge to make faster, cheaper, sounder business decisions than humans, is a tougher concept to digest.

I was surprised to learn that back in 2000, research out of the University of British Columbia had already identified a fundamental shift occurring in the labour market. Traditional left-brain work, such as business analysis, was being replaced by technology. Back then, university graduates secured work in the knowledge economy without too much difficulty, but the shift was gaining real traction. As proof, the McKinsey Global Institute found that from 2001 to 2009, transaction jobs (back tellers, checkout clerks) decreased by 700,000 in the U.S. and production jobs decreased by 2.7 million. Harvard professor William Bossert, in looking at a changing world, once remarked, “if you’re afraid­ that you might be replaced by a computer, then you probably can be — and should be.”

If technology is able to fulfill many traditional roles with robots, drones and other new creations, where do humans fit at this intersection? Fortune magazine recently highlighted Geoff Colvin’s new book, “Humans Are Underrated.” In Alan Murray’s commentary on the book, he makes the point that, “we’ve spent most of the past two centuries trying to get humans to act like machines. But as we perfect machinery, that strategy is making workers ever more redundant. What we need in the future instead is for humans to act more like humans.”

If Bossert’s assertion is correct, and technology will perform left-brain thinking better than humans, Colvin argues our greatest advantage lies in what we humans are most powerfully driven to do for — and with — one another. These aptitudes all arise from our deepest, most essentially human abilities: empathy, creativity, social sensitivity, storytelling, humour, building relationships and leading. This is how we create value that is durable and not easily replicated by technology — because we’re hardwired to want it from humans.

These high-value skills create tremendous competitive advantage — more devoted customers, stronger cultures, breakthrough ideas and more effective teams. And while many of us regard these abilities as innate traits, Colvin cites the Cleveland Clinic, the U.S. Army and the Stanford Business School as paying close attention to leveraging the right-brain skills of social interaction.

As technology advances, let us accept that we cannot compete with technology. Rather, let’s look for the symbiosis between human intelligence and technological intelligence.

Colvin’s takeaway advice is that the talent on our acquisition list should have skills in relationship building, teaming, co-creativity, brainstorming, cultural sensitivity and the ability to manage diverse employees. It is likely tough — perhaps impossible — to write algorithms for some of these. I guess we’ll find out.

What do you think?
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Ian Hendry headshoptIan Hendry is the president of the Strategic Capability Network. In his Morning Musings, he provides insight on issues facing today’s business leaders and looks at subject matter related to upcoming SCNetwork events. He is also VP HR & Administration at Interac Assocation.


Filed under: future of work, morning musing, technology Tagged: future of work, morning musing, technology
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