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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