Tech, humans and organisation design

Tomorrow there’s an Organisation Design Forum (ODF) discussion on Organisation Design Trends and Implications.  Panel members – I am one – have been asked to consider the question ‘What’s the big deal about technology and organisation design?’ together with four related questions:

  • Does technology impact the theory and practice of org design, and if so in what way?
  • What are the implications for the designer?
  • Can optimally functioning organisations be designed by AI?
  • Tech has the possibility to augment human capabilities and also replace human capabilities via robotics and AI.  How might organization designers impact this evolutionary process in a positive way…versus being limited to the clean-up activities as organizations shrink and/or people are displaced?

I can’t answer any of these questions off the top of my head so, knowing they were coming – but only about a week ago – I’ve been seeing if I can form a point of view by reading on the topic.  The difficulty is – where to start?  Tech and humans are the stuff of endless consulting company papers.  Look, for example at Deloitte’s,  Intelligent interfaces: Reimagining the way humans, machines, and data interact  where we learn that ‘Thermal imaging technologies can detect changes in shoppers’ heart rates. A variety of wearables ranging from today’s smartwatches to tomorrow’s augmented-reality goggles capture a wearer’s biofeedback. Smartphone data captured in real time can alert retailers that customers are checking online to compare prices for a specific product, suggesting dissatisfaction with store pricing, product selection, or layout.’

Accenture leaders Paul R. Daugherty and H. James Wilson, authors of Human + Machine, ‘show that the essence of the AI paradigm shift is the transformation of all business processes within an organization–whether related to breakthrough innovation, everyday customer service, or personal productivity habits. As humans and smart machines collaborate ever more closely, work processes become more fluid and adaptive, enabling companies to change them on the fly–or to completely reimagine them. AI is changing all the rules of how companies operate.’

What’s striking about the language of Deloitte and Accenture is the impersonality of it.  Where is the human experience, emotion and feeling that is integral to tech deployment in organisations?  How will humans feel when their work processes are changed ‘on the fly’?   The human/machine interface is the critical element in answering the ODF questions.  But humans, with all our complex emotions and responses, don’t show up in a rich, human way in articles and white papers on digital and tech transformation.  They are secondary to the work processes and the tech.

Making an assumption that humans will continue to be part of organisational functioning, I’m wondering how we can elevate their status in discussions, so that designers are not concentrating only on the tech systems, structures and processes but also on the humans and their feelings.

What’s captured my interest are people who look at the human/machine interface both curiously and critically from perspectives that I am unfamiliar with.  From the handful of material that caught my attention comes a common thread – that we will be dangerously exposed if we focus on the machine over the human.

There’s a book Robots and Art: Exploring an Unlikely Symbiosis, that is a collection of chapters by various people.   Amy M Youngs’ chapter ‘Embracing Interdependencies: Machines, Humans and Non-humans‘ opens with the abstract:

‘As a creator of interactive, constructed ecosystems, I discuss my artistic practice as a way to experience self as interdependent and to re-engineer relationships between humans and other species. Technologically enhanced mirroring, participation, re-programmed elements and designing for non-humans are examined as techniques that entangle the audience within the fabricated systems. Re-configuring the human participant as one element enmeshed within a system that equally includes technology, industry, waste streams and other living things, I work towards new models of collaboration and shared world building.’ It’s powerful in its statement that ‘technology is no longer thought of as a rational, controllable element. … We are in it, not necessarily in control of it.’

This point is taken further by Jamie Susskind in his book Future Politics where he says ‘Relentless advances in science and technology are set to transform the way we live together … We are not yet ready – intellectually, philosophically, or morally – for the world we are creating.’

In the hard to read, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ Donna Haraway explores the relationship between tech and humans, saying ‘By the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism – in short, cyborgs.’  I found an interview with her which was easier to grasp than the manifesto. The interviewer says ‘If we’re going to build a humane techno-culture, instead of a Kafkaesque nightmare, we would do well to listen to what she [Haraway] has to say.’  And what she says is:  ‘Technology is not neutral. We’re inside of what we make, and it’s inside of us. We’re living in a world of connections – and it matters which ones get made and unmade.”

Then I came across the piece ‘Hunting for life in the machine’ the by-line reads ‘Get it wrong and living with smart machines will be hell’.  The piece looks at the work of designer Yamanaka Shunji whose ‘projects include beautiful prosthetics and life-like robots that re-examine the relationship between humans and machines.’  (See image above).

Beyond the warnings we organisation designers can learn more about the tech/human interface from designers in other fields.  Designer and weaver, Anni Albers talking in 1937 says ‘Life today is very bewildering.  We have no picture of it which is all-inclusive. … We have to make a choice between concepts of great diversity.  And as a common ground is wanting, we are baffled by them. … For we are overgrown with information, decorative maybe, but useless in any constructive sense.  We have developed our receptivity and have neglected our own formative impulse.’  Albers commentaries on her  lifetime of weaving materials that  bridged the technology/human interface hold insights for organisation designers that are as applicable now as they were then.

Taking weaving into a different sphere,  Weave: the Social Fabric Project at the Aspen Institute ‘is building connection where there was no connection, creating relationships where there were no relationships, weaving thick neighborhoods where there were thin neighborhoods.’  It is a version of Facebook but without the mediation of technology and with greater human benefit.  (A research project designed to test what happened when people turned off their Facebook accounts for a month found that ‘Leaving Facebook boosted self-reported happiness and reduced feelings of depression and anxiety).

I read Singapore’s Digital Government Blueprint.  In the centre of it is the strapline Digital to the Core + Serve with Heart.  I liked that apparent intention.  But I wonder – is it feasible to design organisations that combine a tech-human exchange that is intellectually, philosophically, and morally thought through – digital + heart?  Let me know.

Image: Ready to Crawl,  Yamanaka Shunji

Organization design: the hot topic

I am speaking at a conference in Shanghai and Beijing, in May and have just been developing my presentation ‘Organisation Design: the hot topic’.

The conference is about the research, science and technologies that are changing organisations and the organisers have asked that my piece focus on the new technologies including AI, robotics and data tools and their impact on organization designs.

Most obvious is the view, typified in an article that ‘Every aspect of human life—our food, our work, our intimate interactions, our DNA itself—is, or will soon be, mediated by the technology we embrace. Machines can now recognize speech and written text; images will be next. Algorithms know your face, and the faces of millions of your fellow citizens. They can infer, with increasing accuracy, a person’s income, mental health, gender, creditworthiness, personality, feelings, and more from public data.’  This means what for organisation design?  Three questions stand out:

  • What is the  effect on jobs?
  • How do we protect employee/individual privacy as AI spreads?
  • What is the effect of AI on our competitiveness/competitive position?

It is not good enough to provide the answers to all three as: ‘it depends’ or ‘we don’t know’.  But this is, in fact, the case – look at the optimism v pessimism view of technology in the Zuckerberg (optimist)  v Musk (pessimist) discussion.

As one writer notes, ‘Leading a company in the years ahead is sure to be more challenging than at any time in living memory. AI will require bosses to rethink how they structure departments, whether they should build strategic technologies internally or trust outside firms to deliver them, whether they can attract the technical talent they need, what they owe their employees and how they should balance their strategic interests with workers’ privacy. Just as the internet felled some bosses, those who do not invest in AI early to ensure they will keep their firm’s competitive edge will flounder.’

Putting you on the spot.  What is your view of this description?

‘This is the local office of [US company] Humanyze … Its employees mill around an office full of sunlight and computers, as well as beacons that track their location and interactions. Everyone is wearing an ID badge the size of a credit card and the depth of a book of matches. It contains a microphone that picks up whether they are talking to one another; Bluetooth and infrared sensors to monitor where they are; and an accelerometer to record when they move. … The technology will allow the company to gauge their employees’ productivity and accuracy., the Chinese e-commerce firm, is starting to experiment with tracking which teams and managers are the most efficient, and using algorithms to predict attrition among workers.’

Whether you are optimistic or pessimistic you can instantly see that there is an effect on jobs, privacy, and competitive position

Take the jobs angle first.  There are three organisation design aspects of this:

  1. Monitoring how employees are doing their jobs to increase productivity and control performance could mean designing jobs that focus on these two aspects at the expense of innovation, job autonomy, engagement, and social interaction.
  2. Replacing employees with automation that does the job instead of humans could result in fewer jobs being available to working age people, However, as the McKinsey Global Institute finds, ‘the extent to which these technologies displace workers will depend on the pace of their development and adoption, economic growth, and growth in demand for work. Even as it causes declines in some occupations, automation will change many more—60 percent of occupations have at least 30 percent of constituent work activities that could be automated. It will also create new occupations that do not exist today, much as technologies of the past have done.’ Either way – more, fewer, different jobs will result in different organisation designs.  (See also MIT’s Every study we could find on what automation will do to jobs, in one chart)
  3. Helping humans develop the new skills needed to work in a technology mediated society.  Here McKinsey says ‘Our scenarios suggest that by 2030, 75 million to 375 million workers (3 to 14 percent of the global workforce) will need to switch occupational categories. Moreover, all workers will need to adapt, as their occupations evolve alongside increasingly capable machines. Some of that adaptation will require higher educational attainment, or spending more time on activities that require social and emotional skills, creativity, high-level cognitive capabilities and other skills relatively hard to automate’.  Again, it is easy to see the job and organisation design implications of this statement as ‘right people, right place, right time’ take on new dimensions and urgency.  It also raises a question about who finances new skills development.  (See also the March 2018 OECD Report Automation, Skills Use and Training)

Additionally, the short Humanyze scenario above shows that we should all be concerned about indiviual/employee privacy and the ethics of surveillance in the workplace (and elsewhere).   This aspect of organisation design is moving up the agenda.  Many European organisations are redesigning business units and work functions to enable compliance with the GDPR (data privacy) requirements that come into force in May 2018.

On the AI competitiveness question, one writer suggests that ‘in the years ahead AI might contribute to the rise of monopolies in industries outside the tech sector where there used to be dynamic markets, eventually stifling innovation and consumer choice. Big firms that adopt AI early on will get ever bigger, attracting more customers, saving costs and offering lower prices. Such firms may also reinvest any extra profits from this source, ensuring that they stay ahead of rivals. Smaller companies could find themselves left behind.’  For organisation designers this could mean redesigning organisations to stay competitive – perhaps through forming consortiums, co-operatives or alliances that transform insular hierarchies into collaborative networks that collectively compete with any impending monopolies.

How do you think advancing technologies will impact organisation design? What are you doing about it?  Let me know.

Image: The technological citizen