Are humans really necessary?

9 May 2017 | Leading with Foresense

It was two days of great minds exchanging thoughts about sustainable leadership, management, innovation — and technology. It happened in Warsaw on 26-27 April, and I was both a keynote speaker and one of 61 people on six panels discussing a wide range of issues. It was also the occasion for the presentation of "the prestigious 'European Leadership Awards' ... granted to honour the best enterprises, managers, and business leaders" in Poland.

You can read a great summary of the two days here [link]. But I never go to such an event without learning as much or more than I share. Here are my thoughts a few days after the event.

Allow me to focus on the subject of my presentation, the current battle between technology and people. There have been umpteen articles and videos about how artificial intelligence and/or robots are going to take jobs away. Will humans soon be mere servants to some digital mastermind? It's an exciting conversation happening all over. Here is some of what I learned from some of the great speakers I encountered in Warsaw.

  • First, the business world is not 100% digital, and digital transformation has achieved low penetration thusfar in many firms. That means the big impact of technology on human workers is still on the horizon for most players and industries. And the sense I gained is that technology will most likely seep into the workplace in an uneven way.
  • Nonetheless, the shifting technological landscape is forcing companies to chose different distribution channels. Your local bricks-and-mortar store is being challenged by the explosion of e-commerce and the globalisation of most marketplaces.
  • Leaders, then, must focus on "what customers actually value" as technology creates the kind of "experience economy" made famous by Joe Pine and James Gilmore, who were not at this conference but, FYI, here is a related [link].
  • Eventually, channel and value proposition changes will have a wider effect on most everyone's business model. Technology is leading everyone to think much more deeply about key capabilities, partnerships, and the customers willingness to pay for experiences.
  • The old cliché about "innovate or die" is now reborn. But innovation is not as simple as ordering a new computer platform for the company. Culture will be a big challenge to innovation, and I am not only talking about the culture inside the company but the culture of the nation in which the firm operates. To my mind, this means that leaders are going to have to elevate their understanding of the human element, which means that corporate openness will have to move to new levels as well.
  • Multinationals operating in Poland (and other countries, assuredly) will benefit form their exposure to a larger global enterprise that can share different experiences from operating units around the world. Though it is by no means a template, many seem to feel that the "American mindset" would be more and more in demand.
  • As companies begin serving new customer segments or start to enter new markets, the opportunity to learn will be enormous. Here, again, the human element comes to the forefront. While technology might enable a company to serve a new set of customers, it will take human insight to determine how well those customers are being served. And, should companies choose to grow into new markets via acquisitions of other companies, the fusion of the combined corporate strengths will only come if humans learn to unite their disparate points of view.

The advent of more technology will mean that every business will have to go through some stormy weather. In the distant past, technology was simply a tool that did exactly what humans commanded and no more. Humans built the machines that built the cars. Now, we are seeing the dawn of technology "thinking" for itself and providing whole new sets of information that will greatly expand corporate capabilities and insights. As we move to new technological platforms, the journey will test the strength of leadership wisdom and resolve. My advice? Make sure you don't leave behind the umbrella of human learning.

Here is the PowerPoint presentation from my keynote address. Hope you find it useful.


Joseph PistruiJoseph Pistrui (@nextsensing) is Professor of Entrepreneurial Management at IE Business School in Madrid. He also leads the global Nextsensing Project, which he founded in 2012.

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