From Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 classic movie Modern Times to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator series, filmmakers have long been obsessed with the idea of man versus the machine. And with technology becoming ever more clever, and people like Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking, plus the boffins at Oxford University and Deloittes warning about the perils of artificial intelligence taking our jobs – or killing us – that concern isn’t going away any time soon.
Many jobs are already being done by machines, and many more will be – driving cars, waiting tables, writing sports stories (yes, that last one is happening). But the organisational answer to a world increasingly dominated by enormous computing power is counterintuitive, says Jane Cherrington, author of the latest Idealog Briefing research report “Homo ex machina: The human side of business”. Rather than organisations becoming too focused on technologies, they need to become more adept at managing the human side of business. And the most successful company cultures will recognise what makes their staff human beings, not resources. Then they will work on that humanness to create the most engaging – and therefore as productive and profitable – contexts possible, she says.
In 2013, Gallup research into US employee engagement found 70% of workers don’t care much about their job, including 18% who are “actively disengaged”. These actively disengaged employees are busy grumbling about their job and undermining what their co-workers accomplish – and that’s costing the global economy billions in lost productivity a year, according to the report.
Cherrington argues these engagement figures are to a large extent the product of a traditional, dominant, corporate/industrial management model, where the boss sits at the top, and the underlings don’t have much idea about life anyone outside their immediate silos, and have little ability to make decisions that matter, or to make meaningful contributions to the direction of the company. It’s a model which was created to suit the industrial age, with a production-based logic which treats people like resources. “Asymmetries of power and accountability” in this model “seem quite natural and are largely unquestioned”, she says, but company structures don't have to be like that.
As the engagement figures clearly show, the top-down management model doesn't work for employees. People lower down the chain don’t have much chance to use their wisdom, to be autonomous, or to get good feedback from the boss about what they do that makes a difference – and these are all the things that make jobs meaningful.
“The phrase ‘our people are our greatest asset’ has certainly become common. However those survey results reveal just how poorly this ‘asset’ is currently managed. [For example] that feedback about our contribution to purpose is crucial – it’s a way for us to understand the 'why' of what we are doing; it lets us know what we are doing matters, that we are not just turning up so someone else can make money.”
Another reason these traditional structures fail is they don’t reflect how organisations actually work – a highly complex network of social relationships, some of which are productive for the organisation, others not. Person A hates Person B; C is sleeping with D; E, F and G play football together, H and I are Facebook friends etc. If you plan with awareness of these relationships, you have a far greater chance of success when it comes to enacting change.
Las Vegas-based online clothing company Zappos has recognised the problem with existing models and is attempting a new model of decentralised leadership aimed at more empowerment, innovation and productivity. The jury is still out as to whether it will be a success. But whatever the model you use, one that creates a culture of engagement and empowerment is key to shifting those numbers.
What is to be done to set culture?
Leaders are definitely important in setting company culture, Cherrington says, but leaders do not always have the right skills or information. “If they do the same thing they have always done, it clearly won’t work. But do they know what they need to do differently?” A good place to start, she says is with a really good look at the drivers of behaviour currently operating in your business.
“This is not so much about analysing day-to-day tasks, as it is about looking closely at the underlying values and beliefs being promoted by the actions and behaviours in play as tasks are carried out – or avoided. They may not reflect the value posters on your walls. The values you want to drive behaviour can become the heart of your human engine for how things get done."
The alternative may not be pretty. Take Enron, the US energy trading company that went spectacularly bust after some employees hid billions of dollars in debt from failed deals and projects – and others kept quiet about what was happening.
“It was the beliefs people had in their heads that shaped permission for the actions involved in their downfall – not the values statements in their quarterly reports. The drivers and stories that were creating the real culture were implicit not explicit and a robust social and cultural analysis of the company at the time would have made this crucial disconnection visible.”
Dr Jane Cherrington is research director at The Briefing and founding partner at research and strategic agency String Theory. This article is the first of three taken from the latest Briefing report, Homo ex machina: The human side of business. The report is supported by Accenture Digital and AUT, in association with Idealog and String Theory. For a copy, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.