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The importance of human workers in the smart machine age

April 07, 2017 08:30 IST

'Organisations need to embrace individual human development as a mission critical to organisational competency.'

'There has to be a greater focus on developing people instead of managing people.'

Edward Hess, Professor of Business Administration and Batten Executive-in-Residence, Darden School of Business, University of Virginia, discusses the growth of technology and the challenges it creates for organizations with Sangeeta Tanwar. 

Indian workers

IMAGE: According to Professor Edward Hess a key challenge for organisations will be "the infusion or integration of smart technology into every business function and the education of its human workforce on how to use and complement the technology." Photograph: Amit Dave/Reuters.

What is the key challenge that organisations face with the advent of the smart machine age?

Every organisation will face four critical transformations.

First, the infusion or integration of smart technology into every business function and the education of its human workforce on how to use and complement the technology.

Second, the systemic redesign of the organisation through the creation of a technology-enabled learning system that is designed to optimise the speed and quality of organisational learning and the highest levels of human thinking, listening, relating and collaborating.

Third, creating a new leadership-management model that is based on enabling human development and continuous learning in the pursuit of organisational adaptation and innovation with leaders and managers that role model the new way of behaving.

Fourth, organisations need to embrace individual human development as a mission critical to organisational competency. That will require a completely different approach to the human component of the workforce. HR will become a human development function and that will require the transformation of people, processes, measurements, rewards, hiring, training and retention processes.

To achieve all this, technological, organisational, leadership and workforce transformations will be necessary in most cases.

What are the key abilities that leaders need to acquire and nurture to stay relevant?

The leaders of the future will be enablers with the primary responsibility of enabling the highest levels of organisational and human performance.

They need to follow the 4Es Leadership Model, which involves engaging the world with a quiet ego and as a lifelong learner; embracing uncertainty, the unknown, and complexity with courage; excelling at managing self and "otherness"; and enabling the highest levels of organisational learning and human development.

You say leadership in the smart machine age will be more emotional than was needed in the "command and control" era. How can an organisation go about promoting emotional intelligence?

Organisations need to create a humanistic, positive, psychologically safe, and emotional work environment that mitigates ego and fear and meets the needs of human beings for self-determination.

There has to be a greater focus on developing people instead of managing people. That requires each individual to have a personal development plan with a mentor or coach who isn't involved in promotion, retention or compensation decisions for the person.

We also need to put in place processes and tools that are used daily in all meetings to create the right emotional environment.

In the machine age, strategic competitive advantage will be based in large part on the quality and speed of human learning. How can HR help accelerate the learning curve?

In concert with the chief executive officer and other senior leaders, HR leaders should design and install a learning system.

Define the learning behaviours you want and then design a culture, the structure, leadership model, HR policies, measurements and rewards that enable and promote those behaviours. It is behavioural, thus measurable.

Keep it simple and put in place simple processes or tools that can be rigorously used throughout the company daily to drive the desired learning behaviours.

Leadership has to role model the behaviours and own the culture. Adopt a human development mentality as opposed to a HR compliance mentality. Then train leaders and managers in the science and art of facilitating learning and the receiving and giving of frequent real-time constructive feedback.

With automation, businesses are going to witness rebalancing of human capital. What are the new roles that will take centre-stage across industries?

Most functions will remain but they'll look different because technology will replace many human workers in production, marketing, customer service, distribution, finance, human resources, legal, administration and middle management.

Businesses will need more high performance thinkers, experimenters, creators, and innovators along with more data and computer scientists and human development professionals trained in various fields of psychology.

Sangeeta Tanwar
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