Perspectives on High Performance in the Digital Era
by Lukas Michel

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Session 2High Performance in the Digital Age:

What are the metrics organizations should be watching most closely?

Moderator: Jean-Francois Manzoni, President IMD

Speakers: Adrian Wooldridge, Political editor and ‘Bagehot’ columnist, The Economist

Julian Nida-Rümelin, Professor for Philosophy and Political Theory, Ludwig-Maximilians University of Munich

Stephanie Chasserio, associate Professor, Skema Business School

Andeas Rosenfelder, Head of feature section, Die Welt/Welt am Sonntag.

Digitalization fundamentally changes the nature of work and leadership. That’s a huge advantage for those people that get it. But it also challenges human responsibility: Remote work has many benefits, but it comes with human side-effects. Digital lowers the cost of information searches and extends its reach, but instant feedback challenges critical reflection.

One is tempted to suggest that digital needs work on the system.

Differences between Europe and Asia and the US

In Europe, the digital transformation is more human centred than perhaps in China or Silicon Valley. This allows humans to be empowered, not weakened. In line with humanistic self-responsibility, we are responsible for what happens with us as we use digital tools. Software engineers, for example, need to be aware of their responsibility. Ethical processes need to be embedded in agile project structures.

Ideologies of digital

 Digital development follows two ideologies. The first assumes that autonomous software systems are themselves actors and become agents with attached mental states – not now, but in the future. That’s a threat. How do we treat these new agents with mental states?

Secondly, the claim is that the human brain is no different than an algorithmically governed machine. This means that we are not free and cannot be responsible, so we are no different from machines. That’s scary and a step backwards from the benefits of Humanism, when the state and church separated and self-responsibility was born. Human development that leads to a more humane future needs structures in place that don’t muddle responsibility between humans and machines. We need structures in which we can realize human responsibility, and public responsibility for digital communications infrastructure. It cannot be that a few monopolists control the entire infrastructure.

Work life balance and remote work

We have long wanted a good work-life balance. Remote work presented itself as a great solution. Now, for the last two years, many people are in remote work and experience many bad side effects. Digital work is intensive. People add tasks with no breaks in between. It’s called intensification. More productive time with more cognitive workload. People are tired. And some managers are not compatible with distance management. Control and support become an unhealthy mix. In fact, some people overcompensate for the lack of social time with more meetings than before Covid. Women are particularly challenged to manage children, household, and work duties at home. The result is increased worry, stress, anger and sadness. We need to find a balance between remote and onsite work. People want to come back to work onsite but not entirely. Early regulation, for example in France, goes for a balanced combination – remote and face-to-face time. That seems to be accepted by most organizations.


Meritocracy is how we got from low performance to high performance societies. The 19th century revolutions replaced lineage, hereditary ascription, and venality with achievement, promise, competence. Meritocracy is a very precious thing. But it can be destroyed. Paradoxically, knowledge workers should be allocated work on basis of merit. But, looking across knowledge workforces, such as, NY Times, Google, or Facebook, the vocal ideologists views are “Merit is a sham, individual ability a fiction, jobs should be allocated on the basis of ascribed characteristics such as gender, ethnicity, or sexual preferences”. A huge revolt is taking place within the digital knowledge workforce, at the heart of the digital economy. Individual performance competes with the promotion of certain groups of people. This happens at a time in the Western economy when China is rediscovering its meritocratic traditions. We are rejecting the tool of high performance at the time when others reinstall it. That helps to shift power away from the west to the east.

Digital journalists and volume metrics

The world as a journalist has become digital. Not only the writing itself but with instant feedback about the writing. Paradoxically, we observe an extreme, accelerated culture transformation (digital high performance) and simultaneously experience the collapse of space and time. But, at the same time, cultural institutions need time to develop. We are moving into a world where space and time don’t exist anymore. Reflection on this is very interesting but the lifestyle of a culture journalist has changed completely. From reading newspapers in coffee shops to a constant flow of meetings, chats, real time metrics on reading and conversion rates. Digital real time economics lead to constant information, algorithms in charge, and feedback to take control. That spells the end of critical journalism.

It looks as if you are a high-performance journalist if you have a lot of clicks. And a high-performance academic if you have a lot of publications. Both may be destroying the very essence of the calling, to explain the world and advance knowledge. That’s just satisfying the beast, which is the wrong measurement. We need to get this under control.

Digital revolution has been hijacked

The digital revolution was meant to make us more human, to interact, globally, to destroy large institutions and so free ourselves.. Today, we find a structure that is only helpful for commercial interest, with monopolized markets in the digital sector. Are we freer today? It comes down to the question of who is the master and who the servant. We can be the masters when we act as individuals and as a society.

Digital needs work on the system. We, the people, need to be the masters – not the servants of digital technologies. As individuals we need to be more disciplined. As society, we need to work on regulation. As organizations, we can reinvent performance management. Perhaps, the attitude about performance and metrics needs a transformation.

Personally, I love my golf, and my digital gadgets that offer me feedback. Golf is technically very difficult. Reaching high performance takes time, dedication, and effort. I have gone that way and learned to develop high awareness. I focus my attention on one thing at the time because that enables my body to learn fast. My tech device offers me the feedback I need on one key metric. I use that feedback to raise my awareness and focus my attention. That combination pays off. I have used a digital metric to become better without goals, incentives, or pressure It’s all about fun and the performance that matters to me, the individual.

May I suggest that today’s working world should play more golf to get rid of traditional control and interfering managerial systems and so embrace performance as a joyful side product of what we do. My advice is to decentralize performance, its measurement and management to people that feel responsible at the client front and use digital to support fast learning.

About the Author:

Lukas Michel is a 5x Author, CEO and founder of the global AGILITYINSIGHTS network of management experts.

This article is one in the “shape the debate” series relating to the 13th Global Peter Drucker Forum, under the theme “The Human Imperative” on November 10 + 17 (digital) and 18 + 19 (in person), 2021.

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