In 1982, Time magazine declared the personal computer its “Machine of the Year.” Up until then, humans usually had won a “Person of the Year” distinction.
Time publisher John A. Meyers wrote:
“Several human candidates might have represented 1982, but none symbolized the past year more richly, or will be viewed by history as more significant, than a machine: the computer.”
Pity those worthy humans who might have been in contention. The year 1982 was the point in history when humans became mere mortals, suffering the ignominy of garnering second place to a machine.
It hasn’t got much better. Some 33 years later, we might suggest 1982’s “Machine of the Year” has now morphed into an omnipresence of highly sophisticated technologies, outperforming and outsmarting those fallible humans.
Today’s “Machine of the Year” is no longer solely the personal computer either. It’s everything with an IP address. It’s my fridge!
More alarmingly, perhaps Time’s “Person of the Year” distinction – you know, humans – is becoming irrelevant, destined for a future of runner-up badges to the almighty machine. Wearables, big data, robotics, cloning, telepathy, the “Internet of Things” and the pending “singularity“ – perhaps better stated as the rise of Artificial Intelligence – is no longer relegated to the futuristic thoughts of Orson Welles or Elon Musk. Indeed, the future is now.
There are warning signs ahead that leaders ought to pay attention to.
Firstly, are we destined to put technology ahead of humanity? Leaders of people ought to be equipped to handle the continued onslaught of technology innovation but doing so such that they don’t make the mistake Time magazine made in 1982. We mustn’t allow the machine to replace the true purpose of an organization. We mustn’t abdicate the responsibility of leadership so advanced machinery supplants the very basis of civilization. The workplace will not survive if we put machine before man or woman.
Secondly, just as the roads of yesterday will not take us to the places of tomorrow, old technology hasn’t ameliorated bad management. The typewriter coded letter turned into a Microsoft Word document which turned into a shared Google document. The face-to-face meeting turned into the conference call which turned into a webcam meeting. For many leaders, ironically, these “machines” and innovative advancements have not helped them to become better leaders. If anything, it has made them worse. Distraction looms and inconsiderate use of the technology prevails. It’s analogous to the Victorian era cotton mills, when people were treated as slaves to the machines, and considered dispensable.
So while we continue to develop these new forms of functionality, levels of employee disengagement and disenfranchisement remain at anemic levels. For every Enterprise Social Network we launch and implement, millions of workers remain left out. For every technological advancement invented, there are millions of employees who remain dissatisfied and unrecognized for their efforts at work. Are we trying to let the machine make up for poor leadership?
Thirdly, there is irony. A Chief Information Officer mandates a certain collaboration platform to be installed across the organization – because one of their CIO friends did the same a few months back – but doesn’t once contribute or participate. This is an individual who has misunderstood the benefit of collaborative behavior. Open leadership? Not even close. When a CEO begins to blog on the company’s corporate website – but employees discover it’s full of ghost-written entries by members of the firm’s corporate communications team – it fuels the fire of deceitful behaviour.
If as author Andrew Keen suggests, The Internet Is Not the Answer, and author Nicholas Carr claims we are now operating our organizations in a Glass Cage, what are leaders doing to ensure human behaviour continues to flow – as Plato taught us – via the three main sources of “desire, emotion and knowledge?” If the technology that we are implementing into our organizations is eliminating an employee’s desire and her emotion, while confusing the transfer of knowledge, I argue it is the antiquated behavioural models that we currently have in place in the organizations itself that are causing such dire employee disengagement aftereffects. The technology isn’t helping; indeed it’s simply masking the root problem. The presumption continues that an infusion of new technologies will somehow solve the greater issue. Ultimately, the behaviour remains the same.
Socrates once stated, “The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new,” yet we must also remember that pre-existing behaviour tends to trump enhanced technology functionality. If there is a culture of fear at your place of work, no amount of technology is going to help.
As we continue to develop new technologies and as we seek new growth in our businesses, leaders need not worry about delivering the next new “Machine of the Year” as that will happen anyway. Society has proven over and over again we are pioneers of innovation.
But to truly prosper – to ensure society comes before machine – leaders must develop and inculcate new behaviours that are open, collaborative and inclusive across the organization in step with the technology itself. We must put humanity ahead of and before the technology expansion.
Perhaps we humans should aim to be the next “us,” rather than developing intelligence machines that we plan to build to replace us.
Let “us” put the machine in its place. If we want that to happen – if we want to enhance our own humanity in concert with the technology – leaders best begin the process of introducing and balancing new forms of open and collaborative behaviours with employees and peers, in parallel with the technologies we are thoughtfully, and thoughtlessly, introducing to society.
If we fail to deliver on a proper balance, expect to see plenty more “Machine of the Year” distinctions in the future.
And if this imbalance continues, it’s our humanity that will potentially suffer.
Dan Pontefract is the author of FLAT ARMY: Creating a Connected and Engaged Organization and is Chief Envisioner at TELUS Transformation Office.