Much has been written and discussed about the pace of technological change. More than replacing routine tasks, artificial intelligence can transform business processes, customer service and the way businesses are set up and run. Blockchain technology, for example, is being used for supply chains not only to improve efficiency, but also transparency. Everyone involved has the same information, which cannot be erased.
Blockchain technology can be used by companies to ensure ethical sourcing – as de Beers does in diamondsk. This point, however, underlines that in itself technology is values-free. It will not improve the quality of life for people – ultimately, the goal of any legitimate business – unless directed to by humans. At a time of mounting ecological crisis, there is much potential for technology to sustain and protect the precious resources on which we all rely. Advances include renewable energy sources and more efficient agriculture. The large-scale climate strikes of 2019 ought to herald acceleration of such applications: but implementation depends crucially on whether there is a human ecosystem with the social and environmental consciousness to require that technology delivers these benefits. Pro-democracy protesters use digital media to engage with each other and organize protests – but extreme groups use it to spread hatred.
There are ethical dilemmas emerging in developments that seek to merge technology with the human being: that is, to profoundly alter the human ecology. Elon Musk’s Neuralink initiative, aimed at exploring the possibility of implanting a chip in the human brain, may lead to novel cures for blindness or dementia – but in the capacity for the brain to link in real-time to computers, might there be moral hazards? If an individual with an implanted chip were to commit a crime, might the chip manufacturer be held partly responsible? There is a wider danger in seeing the human being as a processor of information only, overlooking the importance of kindness, generosity, empathy, and love.
In discussion about technological advances there is a tendency to forget, or at least downplay, the fact that digital systems are designed and managed by people, with the intention of serving people: the human ecosystem at the heart of the digital one. Nothing functions effectively without human trust. A recent GPDF19 blog emphasized the importance of trust in relation to customers, describing how online services are used by fraudsters as well as honest businesses.
Trust is of equal importance in respect to employees, and the way in which workplaces are designed and run. My research for the Management Shift has shown that workplaces with the highest levels of human connectivity are more effective than others, often to a dramatic degree. Moreover, they tend to deliver the strongest financial performance too. So there isn’t a choice between head and heart. This is a lesson learned by leading-edge digital as well as traditional firms, as evidenced in the profiles of 35 high-engagement, high-performance businesses in my 2018 book Humane Capital. One of them is the UK-based digital marketing agency Propellernet. It is a human-centred workplace, with its hiring, management and reward policies all geared towards creating a great environment for people. The result is that talented people queue up to join, the brand is strengthened, and the company continues to expand..
The founder Jack Hubbard, almost instinctively “gets” a central point: the quality of the digital ecosystem depends entirely upon the quality of the human one.