Men and machines
I took part in a meeting on technological intelligence and the future of work. One of the questions raised was: “If machines can replace people’s minds in knowledge work as effectively as machines replaced their muscles in manual work, what will ultimately be left for human beings to do? Are we going to run out of jobs?” My answer was that this concern is based on a totally incorrect assumption. Working life does not consist of a finite number of things to which the human mind and human effort can be applied.
The challenges that confront us every day are unlimited. Every solution to a problem generates several new problems and unforeseen opportunities. No matter how many are solved, there will always be an infinite number ahead of us. Although modern technology has reduced the number of things that in the past had to be dealt with by human beings, it increases the complexity of the challenges that require human attention now and in the future.
Technology: robotics, machine intelligence and cognitive computing do change what people should be doing and how organizations come to be what they are. This is why we need to revisit and rethink our conceptualizations of work.
When the Industrial Revolution began, the dominant Newtonian worldview meant that there were no significant uncertainties, or unknowns, messing things up. Physical laws described what things, following a linear, rational causality, would do. Most academic experiments were constructed accordingly, and still are today. The aim was often to study the effect of one known variable on another.
Business enterprises were consequently thought of as algorithmic processes, as machines. Enterprises conceptualized as machines, like all machines, didn’t have a will of their own. They served the intentions of their creator, the owner. Employees were, of course, known to be human beings, but their personal intentions were seen as irrelevant. People were retained as long as they were needed to fulfill the intentions of the creators.
The systemic and biological conceptualization then replaced the notion of an enterprise as a machine. One often overlooked reason for this was the changing structure of ownership. When a firm went public, its creator disappeared. Owners were seen as anonymous, and too numerous to be reachable. The Industrial Revolution turned into the Managerial Revolution we are still living through today.
The Managerial Revolution changed the thinking around the purpose of the firm. Like any biological entity, the enterprise now had fitness and longevity as raisons d’être of its very own. Profit came to be thought of as a means, not an end in itself. Success came to be measured by growth. It was seen as essential, just like in nature.
The systemic view was a profound change in thinking compared with the mechanistic view. A biological organism is not goal-oriented in the sense of serving external purposes or moving towards an external goal. The movement is toward a more fit or more mature form of itself in a particular environment. An organism can adapt, but cannot leave or choose to be something else.
But humans are creative and humans can choose and you never know what they will do next.
This is why things are changing again. The sciences of uncertainty and complexity have helped us to understand that organizations are patterns of interaction between human beings. These patterns emerge in the interplay of the intentions, choices and actions of absolutely all the parties involved. No one party can plan or control the interplay of these intentions. But even without being able to plan exact outcomes, or control what others do, people can accomplish great things together.
The thing is that people can only accomplish their work in the necessarily uncertain and ambiguous conditions through ongoing conversations with each other. Work is negotiation. This is why the next revolution is dawning.
The social revolution, the human-centric revolution, is about deeply rethinking the value of human effort. An increase in value can only occur if people can do something in interaction that they cannot do alone. Social business may be more about complementarity and coordination than collaboration.
An enterprise that is conceptualized as a social business, should (1) serve the purposes, the will, of all its constituents. It should (2) enable its parts to participate in the selection of both the ends and the means that are relevant to them personally. If the parts of a system are (3) treated as purposeful, they must (4) have the freedom to choose and to act, not independently, but interdependently. This is because the basic unit of work is (5) interaction between interdependent people.
This means that the defining characteristic of a social business is the increased, non-algorithmic, variety of behaviors that is available. It is not necessarily about common goals or shared purposes any more. It is a common movement of thought that always surprises us.
The way our organizations are conceptualized has a great effect on what people do, and what they do affects the way organizations are conceptualized. Enterprises have always consisted of people who have ideas, intentions and a will of their own. Now it really matters. All people can be creators. All people are creators!
This, in the end, is what makes people different from machines.