December 14, 2017

The Cognitive Era Is Cool But I’d Like To See The Human Era First

Several large-scale organizations have begun to align around a concept known as the “cognitive era.” Based on artificial intelligence and advanced cognitive systems, “cognitive era” technology has the ability to make judgments and form hypotheses based on the synthesis of “big data.”

Furthermore, cognitive systems have the ability both to learn and to adapt their decisions and line of thinking. What’s not to like about the so-called “cognitive era?”

But do those in charge of the “cognitive era” possess “hearts and minds” in their work?

One company in particular, IBM, took a look at its “cognitive era” efforts and put forward a new goal. As it pertains to cognitive computing and artificial intelligence—the hallmarks of the “cognitive era,”—IBM suggested its new purpose would be to “augment human intelligence.”

It got me thinking about the relationship between the so-called “cognitive era” with today’s corporate culture reality and the quest for “hearts and minds.”

If cognitive computing and artificial intelligence is to augment human intelligence, I believe we should be starting with what is really happening inside our organizations.

I’m not certain the purpose of cognitive computing and artificial intelligence ought to be to “augment human intelligence.” Perhaps it needs to be to improve what I would like to call the “human era.”

Put differently, we need to put human intelligence before artificial intelligence.

How do we ultimately get smarter? When employees feel nurtured—when their souls are filled with purpose in the work they perform—there is a far greater chance of their intelligence increasing. You can’t will someone through technology to feel happier.

Let’s put people first. The “cognitive era” needs to be preceded by the “human era.”

I come across the term “hearts and minds” a fair bit in the work that I perform, in addition to the research that I conduct. It seems many organizations are trying to improve the “hearts and minds” of their employees. I liken the term “hearts and minds” to culture and purpose.

If an organization is open, collaborative, innovative and thoughtful, employees generally feel better and it results in them being more engaged in their work. If the organization depicts (and acts upon) a higher purpose while simultaneously providing roles that allow an employee to feel a sense of purpose, again, “hearts and minds” can be won.

While the general thought of “hearts and minds” is noble, the results have been less than satisfactory. I believe it comes down to the pressures that have enveloped and at times engulfed mid-management and senior leaders. It’s akin to singularly and blindly focusing on the “cognitive era” forgetting that it’s the humans we need to be focusing on first.

Let’s review a few real world examples where “hearts and minds” ultimately end up getting squashed.

The expectation for immediate responses—be it through email, instant messaging or texting—is a classic case that leads to the decimation of “hearts and minds.” Imagine a leader who continually badgers their team through electronic messages, asking for constant updates on an initiative or action. Pressure mounts and the employee becomes increasingly stressed over time. There is no relief, and the messages are relentless. How can “hearts and minds” be won let alone salvaged if this sort of daily pressure is exhibited?

Your boss is on holiday, but continues to work from the beach answering emails, taking conference calls, and generally acting as if they are not vacationing. It’s weird, but you don’t say anything. When it comes time for you to take that deserved family vacation with your spouse and children, that same boss schedules meetings into your calendar while pestering you with random telephone calls. You are on holiday but your boss doesn’t care. Is your heart or mind elevated if this sort of behavior is demonstrated?

You’ve been employed in your role and have reported into your boss for five years. You enjoy the work—it keeps you highly motivated and the tasks are rather creative—but you’re not 100% satisfied or engaged. Why? It’s been five years and your boss can’t remember the name of your two children. Moreover your boss has never asked a single question about your personal interests or even how your weekend went. Is your heart or mind fully into your role if the dignity of simple, human interactions is nonexistent?

The “cognitive era” may seem cool. It may even be all the rage.

But it is the “human era” and the true deployment of a “hearts and minds” culture and purpose that needs to happen first.

Any failure to recognize the importance of our humanity is an indictment on leaders putting technology and/or themselves over people.

Perhaps this is why I continue to boycott Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant. Maybe I just want the “human era” to come first.

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