Why technology is bringing humanness back to work

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For years, advances in science have constantly challenged and pushed the boundaries of what was deemed possible for a human being. In the realm of commercial enterprise and industry we have moved consistently from augmentation of capacity and capability in one form of another to outright elimination of the need for humans to do certain tasks.

While it is possible to see this trend as a threat, it is also possible to view it as an opportunity. An opportunity that emphasizes unique human capacities to achieve greater things.

I recall reading this inaugural lecture by Prof. Lawson Olabosipo Adekoya titled “Man minus machines equals a labourer” which got me thinking about the true role of technology in life and work. It also sort of aligned with my thoughts about the positive role technology plays in advancing humanness at work.

In the industrial age we saw massive shifts in the augmentation of human physical capabilities in the form of machines solving physically challenging tasks in transportation and logistics, automation of manufacturing processes, etc. These advances forced a shift in nature of physical work  and increased emphasis on the human capacity for knowledge related tasks. What remained for the human in the physical task space was the ability to leverage and work with the machines to push the possibilities of what can be achieved when a human being can effectively couple with machines in pursuit of a desired goal. This creates new end goal possibilities and new levels of productivity. One could say the value of being human at work changed and this change came with new capability requirements.

In the knowledge age with the development of digital and computing technology, the same thing is happening, massive augmentation of cognitive capacity and capabilities driving a shift in emphasis once again. New possibilities are emerging as the affordances of a human being effectively coupled with computational and mechanical technologies continue to be explored. Productivity in this new knowledge age requires a new definition.  It becomes extremely important to think about how technology augments knowledge work when creating work or jobs to ensure they are meaningful.

One way to describe this augmentation trend is to refer to it as ‘technology@work’. While there are many ways to look at or interpret the technology@work trend, the interpretation I am adopting here is one that views it as ‘forcing a to return to humanness‘.

For physical work, I see the lowest jobs as largely low-skilled and mindless. They lacked meaning and were the first to be taken over by machines. However the reality today is that as organizations grow in size, more and more of the employees are not ‘present at work’. They approach their jobs with a robotic consistency devoid of any real commitment to meaningful outcomes. This creates a situation where the job might be full of meaning and heuristic requirements but the way the incumbent is doing it makes it largely algorithmic. What this does is highlight the aspects of the job that should be done by technology. The beauty of this is that if technology takes away the algorithmic elements of the job, the human being doing the work will then have to work with the technology and focus on the heuristic aspects of the job requiring the human to be fully present – thus a return to humanness. This potentially adds real possibilities for new levels of output previously unimagined. This is simply because the technology is more efficient at the algorithmic thus potentially already pushing the performance level; we then couple that with the human who is now operating at and extending the boundaries of the new performance level,  i.e. the human together with technology are now pushing the possibilities of what can be achieved.While this is now obvious in physical work, it is not so obvious in knowledge work.

To be able to fully leverage these possibilities of what human beings can achieve when physical, mental and/or emotional capabilities are augmented by technology@work, we need to intentionally couple humans@work with technology@work, especially in the domain of knowledge work. We also need to help employees understand how to leverage these possibilities in a way that extends their capacity and capabilities, pushing the boundaries of what they believe is possible.

Finally, linking to trending thoughts on volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA), I believe the response to these seems to be driving a natural move towards what is at the core of being human and possibly at the core of true human potential – the capacity for evolution, agility, adaptability and resilience.

Any organization that is taking VUCA seriously would realize that they need more human beings at work doing the things only humans can do (for now). We begin to focus on being clear on the purpose, meaningfulness and value of the work people are asked to do and what they need to achieve. We begin to seriously think about how technology@work can be coupled with humans@work to truly unleash the human potential for dealing with VUCA and through it open up new possibilities.  We begin to enter into a world where two realities come alive:

Reality one: being human really matters at work. As long as there is a human-being@work, there is assumed to be phenomenal value and possibilities of performance associated with having that human-being doing that work. We need to call it out.

Reality two: human+technology = defining new realms of possibility. When technology@work is perceived not as a threat to work but as an augmentation of capacity and capability (physical, mental and emotional), it becomes a phenomenal force for pushing the boundaries or limits of what is considered possible at that point in time.

We need only start thinking differently about work, specifically,

  1. What we want human beings to do
  2. What technology@work is required to push the possibilities of their performance doing it
  3. What mind-set, knowledge and skills they require to be able to effectively augment their capacity and capabilities with technology@work

At the moment, we are faced with unprecedented opportunities due to advances in knowledge about human beings and advances in technology. Organizations should be able to fully leverage the human+technology possibilities to create a new world of work, new frontiers of business and set new standards of excellence in all areas of work and life.

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