In the last decade, technology has made it cheaper and easier to start new businesses, finance them, realize operational efficiencies and scale geographically. It has also empowered customers and employees through social media, which has created opportunities for competitors. While these changes have been transformative, coming technology advances in the areas of smart robotics, artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things and Big Data (“AI Revolution”) will metamorphose how businesses are staffed, operated and managed.
Businesses of the future will look a lot different than the businesses of today. Most will be staffed by some combination of smart robots, smart machines and people. Technology will likely displace many human workers. In the best research published to date, authors Frey & Osborne of the University of Oxford opine that up to 66% of the U.S. workforce has a medium to high risk of being displaced by technology in the next 10-20 years. What jobs will require humans?
The predictions from experts at MIT, IBM and Oxford are that humans still will be needed for jobs requiring complex critical thinking, creativity, innovative thinking, and high emotional and social engagement with other humans, as well as performing customized manual tasks requiring physical dexterity.
Thinking critically and innovatively and effectively engaging with others emotionally are not easy for any of us because they require us to overcome our naturally reflexive ways of thinking, listening, and being emotionally defensive. Overcoming them usually requires the help of others in a supportive trusting environment. Thinking critically and innovatively are team activities. The good news is that the science of learning provides us with a blueprint for how to create the kind of work environment that enables higher-order thinking, creativity and human engagement. A key finding is that an emotionally positive work environment better enables learning, thinking, innovating and collaborating while an emotionally negative work environment inhibits them.
In other words, most people won’t perform at their highest potential in a work environment that is hostile, untrustworthy or where they are fearful. As psychologist Abraham Maslow stated—“people will engage in learning to the extent they are not crippled by fear and to the extent they feel safe enough to dare.”
The culture and leadership model needed to create an emotionally positive work environment are very different than the prevalent cultures and models resulting from the Industrial Revolution. Command and control leadership, Theory X leadership beliefs as defined by Douglas McGregor and cultures of fear will not enable the work environment needed in the AI Revolution. The attitudes and behaviors of arrogant, elitist, all-knowing hierarchical leaders will not optimize higher-order human thinking, creativity or emotional engagement. The AI Revolution will require many businesses to confront this reality.
The findings in the science of learning are consistent with eight major business research projects conducted over the last 30 plus years that have illuminated the common characteristics of consistent high-performance businesses. Thus, we know “the secrets” of building a high-performance humanistic positive emotional work environment that enables humans to overcome their naturally suboptimal ways of thinking, learning and relating. Like most things in business, however, the concepts are simple to state; the real challenge is the daily rigorous execution of the principles.
Bridgewater Associates, LP; Intuit, Inc.; Pixar Animated Studios; Google; W.L. Gore & Associates; Southwest Airlines; Whole Foods; Starbucks; Room & Board; Trilogy Health Services; The Container Store; Zappos; and others have achieved consistent high performance through high employee emotional engagement. They have done this by meeting employees’ basic human needs for autonomy, growth, meaningful work and meaningful relationships through candor, mutual high accountability, an idea meritocracy, authenticity, humility, the devaluation of hierarchy, and relentless constant learning. That is how Bridgewater Associates develops outstanding “independent thinkers” and how Google develops outstanding “smart creatives.”
I believe the AI Revolution has the potential to make the Industrial Revolution business management and leadership model as obsolete as the Model T. In its place will be a more humanistic model evidenced by a highly engaging, emotionally positive workplace. Creating that new environment will require many businesses to radically change their culture, leadership model and view of employees. In the needed environments, employees will not be viewed as fungible commodities or primarily as a cost of doing business.
To further enable the needed optimal human performance, most businesses will have to be organized in small teams or small business units so people can develop trusting and collaborative personal relationships that are required for optimal critical and innovative thinking. For example, W.L. Gore has over 10,000 employees but is organized in small business units composed of generally 250 or fewer employees. Those business units do their work in teams and every employee has a mentor who is held accountable for his or her mentees’ personal development. Likewise, Bridgewater Associates, LP, the largest hedge fund in the world and one of the most successful, generally limits the direct reports of any manager or leader to seven people, allowing personal relationships to be built that enable each individual to receive the developmental feedback necessary to perform at a consistent, high level.
From a human resource perspective, the mission will change from managing resources to developing people. The human capabilities needed to complement technology in the AI Revolution do not come naturally to us. It is hard to think critically and innovatively. It is hard to manage our emotions and engage non-defensively in frank collaborations. All employees will need individualized, personal developmental coaching (not training) to help them become better thinkers, listeners, collaborators and learners. In most cases, such coaching will focus on developing emotional and social intelligence, mindfulness, authenticity, humility, empathy, and the managing of one’s fears, ego and emotional defensiveness. For many of us, that is a daily journey not a one-time training intervention.
Who wins in the coming AI Revolution? High performance businesses that:(1) create the right people-centric, positive emotional work environment through the alignment of the right culture, structure, leaders/managers behaviors, measurements and rewards; and (2) rigorously use on a daily basis best thinking, learning, listening, relating, collaboration, and feedback processes.
It is ironic that at the same time as the AI Revolution will displace many human workers, it will also “force” humanistic changes upon most businesses. Those changes will be strategically necessary to enable the highest human capabilities required to complement and work well with technology.