Brainstorm: You cannot automate human nature

People, process and technology, but how often do we overlook the people?


Published by Brainstorm Magazine: https://brainstorm.itweb.co.za/content/5yONPvErKpw7XWrb


During a recent conference in Johannesburg, I introduced my presentation with two questions to the audience. I initially asked what single thing the new breed of smart technologies can never achieve. Several hands were raised, and I got some interesting responses. The answer I was looking for is that technology will not change basic human nature.


The second question was, what one thing can we never automate? Again, some interesting responses from the audience. But my tongue-in-cheek statement was that we can never automate stupidity. The audience was laughing, but many looked confused.


My point was that, in my experience, the reason many technology initiatives in business don’t live up to expectations or flatly fail, is that we often underestimate the impact it will have on people, and how they will respond.


Senior executives make technology investment decisions based on important elements such as increasing competitiveness, growing market share, return on investment, improving customer satisfaction, and reducing churn.


The organisational impact of these decisions is rarely considered adequately, which brings me back to human nature. People are naturally fearful of change, especially in the era we live in these days. The pandemic resulted in heightened job insecurity as many lost their livelihoods, and many are struggling to find employment. Add to this the fact that many wage earners look after several extended family members, and the situation looks dire for reducing poverty in the country.


In my career, I’ve worked for some of the largest consulting firms, and when we have client meetings and we stroll in with our suits and laptops, there’s often a hush on the shop or office floor. People look up in bewilderment, knowing from experience that their leaders are leaning on the apparently vast experience (not to mention the hourly fees) of these consultants. And it often ends badly for most employees.


It's easy to forget about the people whose lives our decisions will impact. Consultants will draw pictures and present great-looking slides, but we rarely speak about people. Or when we do, it’s easier to refer to them as ‘resources’ or ‘FTEs’ (full-time equivalent). We make statistical calculations in our ivory towers and with the stroke of a pen, the lives of many are affected.


A new breed of ethics

I don’t want to seem naive: business leaders are dealing with many challenges. The rapidly increasing competitive landscape, new techno-entrants into their markets, and shareholder returns are constant factors. The pressure for increased revenue and margins is continuously growing and it’s easy to think that process automation and staff reduction are the quickest ways to keep our heads above water.


Modern technology platforms have advanced from automating repetitive, typically back-office business tasks to the front office where client experience is the current battleground. Buzzwords like robotic process automation – or these days, intelligent or hyper-automation – are colonising conference topics and the proposals of consulting firms. I always urge clients to approach this topic as a people-first initiative. Don’t start by only considering the technology. The organisational impact of smart technologies should never be underestimated. The operating model, in fact, the organisational design, will have to adapt to automation and smart technology platforms.


Technology will, in my opinion, never alter human nature. The value of people should always be our main focus and ethics should underpin all our technological endeavours. The disruptive power of new technologies needs a new breed of ethical, human-centric, leadership in business.