We cannot let technology, however advanced, replace humanity with all its sensitivities, it’s appreciations of love, beauty and nature, it’s need for affection, sympathy and purpose, it’s hopes and fears, intuitions, imagination and leaps of faith. Technology, even AI, in all its possibilities, can never replicate these.
We must not let the demands of economic man/woman dominate our fuller humanity. AI must be our servant rather than our master, economics the basis of a good life for all but not its purpose.
In the past century the organisation, the company (literally a gathering of companions) at its best, recognised this. It offered security and personal development in return for commitment. My own company, Shell, was paternalistic almost to a fault. In those days the social contract was clear – companies looked for customers, employed workers to satisfy those customers and thus became customers themselves. My job, a la Drucker, was to create more customers, subject always to a requirement to earn a given return on capital in order to invest in the company’s future and pay a reasonable rent to the shareholders for the use of their money.
That was then, profit was the result not the purpose.
Agency theory, shareholder value, stock options and bonuses heralded a new world in which workers became costs not assets, whatever was said by their chairmen. Since then Coase’s idea that firms are needed to keep transaction costs down has been disrupted by technology, leading to the fragmentation of the company, turning it into a network of economic contracts in which individuals are valued only for the added value they contribute. It is, as Rick Wartzman says in his new book, The End of Loyalty, but it is also the end of the company as an alternative home where you could, to a degree, be your full self.
The new and growing world of self-employment, gig work, small enterprises, subcontracting and part-time work suits many. Some small businesses are like families while many independent professionals and craftspeople have relished the freedom and survived any economic hazards at the beginning. Lucky are we whose work is both what we do and who we are. Yet for many others the freedom is illusory, the humanity is absent, the unmet need to belong to something, anything, is painful. Half of our populations feel they are missing out – hence the populism and the anger. Those wanting to leave the future in the hands of GAFA (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple) and NATU (Netflix, Airbnb, Tesla, Uber) should think again. These new data-led organizations have many devoted followers but produce little tangible wealth and themselves employ few people. They cannot be the answer.
So the problems are clear and becoming ever more urgent. So are some of the questions that need to be answered which include:
Can the new technologies enliven and enrich our humanity, in health, education and better living?
Could organizations deploy the new technologies to structure themselves around more human-scale clusters in which individuals had the space to flourish?
Can we redefine progress, both individually and nationally, to be more than economic? Will experiences and relationships come to be more valued than riches? May we finally see the End of Economic Man that Peter Drucker first envisaged in 1939?
Will the social role of business expand to include some responsibility for the education and support for the ‘precariat’ workforce that surrounds them? If not will governments take it on?
How will we define good work, a good organization and a good life?
Who will lead the way to a new understanding of what it means to be a manager in this new world? Can the Drucker Forum be one source of the creative imagination that we will need?
About the author:
Charles Handy is a social philosopher and writer. He’s been an oil executive, an economist, and professor at London Business School in his long and distinguished career. His new book is The Second Curve: Thoughts on Reinventing Society. He will make the closing address at this year’s Forum.