Managing The Human – Technology Interface

The title of my third book, published in 2018. is “The Most Important Asset: Valuing Human Capital.” Although I believe what that title suggests it does not mean other assets are not critical. Financial, customer and technological capital are the vehicles through which people work to achieve organizational objectives. Of late there seems to be a belief that technology is the key to success, given the dramatic progress made in that arena. But when relative importance is debated there is often an “either – or” mindset that results in a competition between the types of capital. We are living in a “both – and” world where things are particles and waves, not one or the other. Perhaps the best way to relate human capital and technological capital is to conclude they are both necessary, but individually not sufficient, pre-requisites for success.

If the premise that both people and technology are critical is accepted it becomes apparent that the interface between them must be managed well. Either can undermine the effectiveness of the other. The concept of socio-technical systems came on the scene several decades ago. One of its principal prescriptions is that there needs to be a mindset that embraces the compatibility between the two types of capital. But because of the considerable rhetoric about robots and algorithms replacing people there is a danger that a people vs. technology war might break out. Even if technology does not replace someone it might significantly alter the knowledge and skill requirements people must possess and that can be threatening. People were selected into roles based on their qualifications to perform in those roles and if the work changes the qualifications change and the people must change. Mid and late career people may not be enthusiastic about “going back to school.” And they may feel betrayed if they think they were led to believe what they know and are able to do is all that is and all that will be required.

Recent research by the Workforce Institute at Kronos suggests employees often feel the technology they use at work is not as easy to adopt as the consumer applications they use, such as social media tools and games. If someone has learned to search for entertainment, do their banking and communicate with others seamlessly and with limited effort it is understandable that they would expect that work technology could be similarly effortless. Yet fewer than ¼ of those surveyed found that to be the case. These findings held true across the globe. In response to other questions asked over 1/3 felt that outdated processes and legacy technology made their jobs harder rather than easier. And younger workers believed this more strongly than those in mid to late career phases.

Despite dramatic advancements in technology the people who must use it are not happy with it. Since people have to create the technology there must be a disconnect between those that design it and those who use it. This can lead to a negative impact on employee engagement and satisfaction, which will produce a decline in performance level. Everyone has been frustrated by user manuals that are supposed to tell you how to put a product together or how to perform actions such as sending a text message. Successful consumer products generally are designed so that using them is intuitive. Yet much of the software used in workplaces seem to be the result of designers who did not think that important. If trying to use technology is frustrating, intimidating and more work than doing something manually there will be less adoption of new tools, even though they might increase productivity once a person figures them out.

When communicating with others employees must decide on whether to use the “efficient” digital approach or walk down the hall and have a person to person conversation. The latter approach is not feasible if the number of recipients is large or if they are scattered across the globe. Most people believe that communication is much less prone to misinterpretation when it is done face to face. But globalization and the increased use of outsiders to do work have both increased the probability that communication is going to be between parties who do not share history and who do not understand how others expect things to be done.

Organizations should consider the person – technology interface when deciding on what technology to adopt. Opting for the newest and shiniest object may be exciting and viewed as being progressive but if it fails to produce the desired results it is just disruption. And if people struggle with incorporating technology results are unlikely to meet expectations. If AI or machine learning algorithms replace human judgment there will be resistance from those who are likely to feel disrespected and diminished. But if the algorithms relieve drudgery by doing the well-defined repetitive work the reception is apt to be much warmer. If I have been lifting 100 pound objects all day and the organization reallocates that part of my job to a robot I am good with that… assuming I still have enough work to do to justify my employment.

Ergonomics (human factor engineering) has helped organizations design workplaces that make people more productive and help them avoid repetitive motion and vision problems. There should be designated experts responsible for doing the same oversight on workplace technology. When people and technology are compatible they both become more valuable.