Imagining a High- Touch/ High- Tech Future
by Yavnika Khanna

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The internet is a wild place to search for the questions that occupy the world’s greatest minds. I read the conversation between Daniel Kahneman and Yuval Noah Harari. They discuss how the experiences of being human, being intelligent and being conscious have changed with the dominance of technology in our lives. The quality and content of the discourse reminded me of the theme of the 7th Peter Drucker Forum.  We are riding on the wave of perpetual technical transformation. Artificial Intelligence, Big Data, the Internet of Things, 3-D printing and digitalization of enterprises on the cloud are the determinants of the economic outlook in the near future. The idea of economies and societies built primarily on technology (“high-tech”) instead of people (“high-touch”) is not just a dystopian possibility. Technology advances the human race, but how can modern day managers make human effort count in technology-driven environments?


Smart managers operating in the VUCA world recognize that managing change is a continuous, collaborative and meticulous responsibility. Managers are flooded with auto-generated data but converting data into insights is primarily a human function. Though machines can churn outputs based on rule-based decision-making models, human foresight is still irreplaceable. Due to the volatile and dynamic characteristics of the external environment, managers can no longer depend only on deterministic models for decision-making. Every organization has to make decisions by leveraging technological prowess AND the human difference – as Richard Straub’s initial blog post noted. The softer capabilities of being human helps us manage change effectively rather than just efficiently. Being human is more than striving for machine like efficiency and precision. Being human is synonymous with creativity, ingenuity, emotional intelligence and other ‘soft skills’ which help us to organize, proliferate and prosper. In Peter Drucker’s words “The human being excels in coordination. He excels in relating perception to action.”


Scientists are trying to make machines more “human”.  In robotics, the latest challenge is creating “humanoid robots”. The concept of humanoids rests on robots being able to ‘evolve’ to match up to human capabilities.  These may include robots having physical traits considered human like being able to walk on two limbs or developing some characteristics of human intelligence. It would no more be science fiction if robots become too human- create forms of expressions like art or cinema or acquire social skills to organize themselves into ‘armies’, ‘governments’ or ‘companies’. If one looks closely, the world is slowly but steadily moving towards an intriguing confluence- from mechanizing the human work force to humanizing machines.


Often managers are confronted with the challenge of fear and friction. This fear of change due to technological transformation is hardly news. In the early 18th century, David Ricardo stated that machinery would “render the population redundant.” The fears about technology linger on. Online storage provider Mozy published the findings of its study in PCworld which notes that 55 percent of IT managers complain that the organizations they work for “perceive the adoption of technology as a risk”, 57 percent of company executives are “fearful of new technology implementations”, 37 percent of respondents to the survey said that IT projects had been aborted or blocked due to this fear. Martin Ford in his new book, “Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future” envisaged a rapid decline in job creation (especially jobs with low wages) due to rapid automation in a world guided by global scale of production.


At a time where humans have designed machines that can outperform the human mind and body, the fear of being overtaken by machines is not completely imaginary. For example, in the above study more than 63 per cent are concerned that technology will leave them jobless. Under the pressures of quarterly profits and stock valuations, managers need to make quicker decisions and trade-offs to displace, augment, upgrade or retire the human and/or technological resources. Any hasty decisions heighten the fear that human employment is in jeopardy with more technology deployment. A 2013 Oxford study on the future of employment argues that almost half (47%) of today’s jobs (in the U.S.) could be automated in the next two decades.


The fast- changing world leaves little time for paranoia. The future of our work also necessitates that humans and technology engage with each other more often and more deeply. The “Always On” economy is such that human employees remain connected with their work and with each other through technology. Different generations, ethnicities and nationalities work together (even virtually) to achieve organizational goals, with machines added into the mix.  Organizations also have to enable the vital linkages between the “high touch” and the “high tech”. High-tech solutions are expected to be agile and responsive to enable greater digitalization within the organization and with its strategic stakeholders. However, sometimes the discussion is so focused on the new tools and technology that the underlying case for the change is relegated to the background. The integration of “high-touch” (human-centric) and “high-tech” (technology-driven) elements is often overlooked in the transformation.


Managing this unique change in the technological landscape requires coordinating human efforts unconventionally. Technological change and the accompanying fears need to be accepted and managed as risks before they turn into group think and paranoia. Start from assessing how mature your organization is in technology adoption, innovation and proliferation. Perhaps encourage stakeholders to articulate fears about the planned technological changes openly and engage them to think of ways to overcome them. Calculating ROI on such projects may not be feasible or even enough. At the proposal stage the users should be engaged to collaboratively formulate objective criteria to strengthen the business case for technology transformation. It is also important to continually record and analyze the barriers to the adoption and the reasons for success. High touch management techniques should not override high-tech ones; they should continually complement each other.


About the author:

Yavnika Khanna is currently a project manager for IT infrastructure related transformation at Capgemini Consulting.  She has also been one of the top ten winners in managers/entrepreneurs category at Drucker Challenge 2012, 2013 and 2014.


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