“One machine can do the work of 50 ordinary men. No machine can do the work of one extraordinary man.” — Elbert Hubbard
I was recently doing research on a project when I came across a piece of Gartner research titled, “Human Is Not the Opposite of Technology,” by analysts Helen Poitevin and Dave Aron. This made me take pause.
Have we reached a point where it’s “either/or” instead of a combination? It seems easy for us to get caught up in one side of the technology hype or the other. It feels as though the polarization of “technology as the savior” verses “technology will end humanity as we know it” is growing. Just do a search on “technology and humanity” and you get results like “Technology vs. Humanity: The coming clash between man and machine” and “Technology is Ruining Humanity.”
We seem to be heading toward a precarious if not rebellious environment when it comes to the use of technology. From a leadership perspective we are on a continuous search for the newest technology because of its assumed direct correlation with productivity growth. However, from an employee perspective, new technology is being viewed with an increasingly suspicious eye. Just consider a 2015 article that appeared in CMO magazine titled, “Your Employees Are Scared Of New Technology; They Think It’s A Predator.”
Unfortunately, much of the messaging and action employees see reinforce that view. Consider the article that appeared in USA Today titled, “Automation could kill 73 million U.S. jobs by 2030.” Articles with similar headlines appeared in Forbes: “Technology Has Already Taken Over 90% Of The Jobs Humans Used To Do” and “Millions Of Jobs Have Been Lost To Automation. Economists Weigh In On What To Do About It.”
Many — if not most — technology projects are at least in part justified by a reduction in workforce. Back in my technology days we would talk during sales cycles about how many full-time equivalents (FTEs) “could be freed up for more productive activities,” but with the understanding that what it really meant was “you could do without them.”
We’ve rapidly progressed from focusing technology on automating manual labor to automating and enabling the information worker. While anecdotal evidence exists, thus far there are not many research studies drawing a direct correlation between technology and productivity improvement for the knowledge worker. However, Sinan Aral, Erik Brynjolfsson and Marshall Van Alstyne concluded in their study, “Information, Technology and Information Worker Productivity: Task Level Evidence,” that there is substantial connection among information, technology and output.
The study’s conclusion came with one rather important caveat: just having IT wasn’t a predictor of performance; instead, how the person uses IT was what predicted the difference in performance. So, unlike production-line robotics where simply having the technology is likely to increase productivity, for information workers, the human plays just as important a role as the technology. In short, those same people that view technology as a predator are responsible for its success.
The reality of life is that we need to continually adopt new technology as a way to exploit the explosion of available data, to overcome talent shortages and, frankly, to stay competitive. As an increasing number of indicators point to an economic downturn and employees become more nervous about their job security, we have an opportunity to increase our messaging around the positive actions we are taking. Amazon, for example, recently took this step in announcing plans to upskill one-third of its workforce by 2025.
It’s the combination of humans and technology that produces the solution — not just technology. Let our actions reinforce that message.
Michael Uskert, Chief of Research, Gartner Supply Chain