I was very excited to attend my first ever DisruptHR event a few weeks back in Cape Town, and I have to say I was not disappointed. This global phenomenon has really taken off with events popping up all over the place. I guess you could say its part TEDx and part stand-up comedy and with a very cool tagline of “the rebellious future of HR” you can sense there’s more than just a need to play catch up with the pace of digital disruption. Oh, and there was free beer!
The HR lag has been glaringly obvious for a while now and when you realise we’re closer to the year 2030 than we are from the year 2000 you’d be forgiven for feeling just a little left behind the rapid innovation wave that’s driving business forward. For those that remember what it was like at the turn of the century, you’ll remember the millennium bug, or Y2K as it was commonly known. It was a time when technology really freaked us out as we realised that the whole world was at risk because of a simple computer glitch where two-digit calendar coding suddenly couldn’t tell the difference between 1900 and 2000. Planes would fall out the sky, banks would lose all our money. It was literally like Armageddon on our doorstep. Thankfully we survived this wave of tech terror, but now it seems that we may be faced with an even deeper crisis. AI and machine learning is on the rise. The robots are coming I hear you say. Too late I say, they’re already here and the workplace will never be the same again. So what’s the problem? Well, in a nutshell, we’re a little off balance. We’re not experiencing a smooth curve of growth, it’s a freakin’ tsunami and we’re paddling around on HR branded boogie boards.
I think the world needs balance and if we’re not careful, we could find humanity under real threat. Not because the machines will rise up against us, but because we’ll start experiencing a loss of personal meaning as our workplaces become completely disrupted by technology. You’d have to be pretty cut off from the world to not have noticed how the world of work is changing. Routine jobs are disappearing, drones deliver parcels, cars drive themselves and the conventional 9-5 work life is fading away like a Blockbuster video store. It’s why Gen-X managers look at millennials with raised eyebrows while millennials are now coming to grips with a workplace that is filling up with Gen-Z’s. This future workforce only knows digital. They’ve literally been born into it. And if you know nothing about generational differences, best you clue yourself up, because that could be at the heart of the challenge and the solution.
Klaus Schwab said, “We must develop a comprehensive and globally shared view of how technology is affecting our lives and reshaping our economic, social, cultural, and human environments. There has never been a time of greater promise, or greater peril.” In simple language, AI and machines present us with amazing benefits by taking away thousands of tasks that are inefficient or unproductive, but at the same time this could leave us emotionally hollowed out because we’ve foolishly based our complete self-worth on having a job, no matter how routine and repetitive it may be.
So there is the good and the bad, but what about the ugly I hear you ask. Workplaces built on maximising and leveraging new technology can truly look like a beautiful thing on the outside and we can even learn to deal with the perceived bad impact by justifying the transition of jobs or running leaner and more agile workplaces. If we don’t pay attention to learning the personal and social skills to navigate our way through all these disruptions we could be in serious trouble. That’s the problem. That’s when it gets ugly. If you’re looking for some clues as to where this all starts, look up. Even Uber, one of the iconic disruptor brands had a meltdown when it was revealed that their workplace culture was toxic largely because of how their leadership set the tone. These examples of a lack of emotional intelligence show how easy it is to bring the best innovative strategies to their knees.
As with all challenges though there’s an opportunity to learn and maybe even grow at the same rate as the disruption itself. Shawn Murphy in his book the Optimistic Workplace, discusses how leaders should shift company climate by focusing on the “universal elements” of a humanized workplace. Nicola Millard, a Futurologist from BT punches this home by adding, that the values that make us more human are more valued in a future world of work where AI, robotics etc can take over more process and routine jobs. Why is this so important? Well for starters, if we don’t increase our EQ skills to match the tech revolution, we’ll be out of balance and we’ll be in danger of being overwhelmed by all this disruption.
Kai-Fu Lee in his popular TED talk gives a personal account of the rate at which innovations like AI can disrupt and how disruption reduces productivity. Never before have we needed to first unlearn and then learn new behaviours at such a breakneck speed. This is going to be demanding. The only way to cope will be reaching a state of emotional balance. EQ skills that help us deal with rapid change and help us unlock our creativity will be in demand. Dealing with workplaces that have no boundaries in time or location will demand new emotional skills.
Interestingly, my very first column ever published in newsprint was about EQ. Now 14 years later I’m finding it more relevant than before because I think developing emotional competence may just be our only chance of retaining our humanity in this hyper-speed tech and digital journey we’re on. As Nelson Mandela said, a good head and good heart are always a formidable combination. That’s balance. That’s ensuring humanity prevails in a disrupted digital world.