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Diversity Change Minds: Can humans flourish in the age of the machine?

Updated: Apr 10, 2020

In the second of a three-part series on cognitive diversity, I look at the limitations of the machine model which dominates much of our thinking today.  Why is it we live, learn, and work the way we do?  It’s a challenge to imagine anything different, but modern life is intrinsically connected to the emergence of the industrial revolutions.  Whilst technological innovation improved our lives, the rapid progress came with trade-offs and unintended consequences too - revealed in the declining health of both ourselves and the natural world. As we embark on the transition to the fourth industrial age, now is a good time to assess whether our ideas and assumptions about people and organisation are still fit for purpose.  As we ponder how best to solve these connected problems, we need to think well beyond the usual bureaucratic remedies, and appreciate the limitations of data, devices, and logic in isolation. Successful progress depends on holistic solutions but more than anything else depends on diversity and cooperation; harnessing unique experiences, mind-sets, and thinking styles as part of a broader movement towards localisation and personalisation..    The meteoric rise of machines The first industrial revolution kick-started an era dominated by unfettered access to goods, improved living standards, and urbanisation.  This coincided with a change in work, as people swapped from village life and handicrafts, to factories and mass production. Machines enabled powerful corporates to deploy a new philosophy; scale-fast, efficiently, and predictably.  Physical and dangerous work was increasingly automated, but two limiting factors persisted - people and time. To address these obstacles, factory owners adopted a scientific approach to management, referred to as ‘Taylorism’.  Introducing mass-bureaucratisation and standardisation to workplaces created a culture of monitoring, measurement, and optimisation of workers for specific outputs.  Workers soon became overheads or resources and over time we framed people through a utility lens - our transactional value through production or consumption.   And so the cog analogy was born, and fueling this business-as-a-machine model was our education system, which embedded routine, discipline, and conformity in kids psyches.  The one-size-fits-all approach to learning often squashed imagination, creativity, and spontaneity, preferring a production line of clones instead. Designed to be interchangeable in the machinations of industry, suffering from burnout became commonplace.  Rather than deal with the causes, our health service too often fixes the symptoms to allow us to return to a ‘normal’, and productive, cog-like state. The parameters of this game have changed We formed these interconnected institutions and systems in an era where stability reigned. We tolerated a standardised approach to everything because our lives improved year-on-year.  Work was largely secure, a career was for life, and retirement was something to look forward to, but did we become complacent? During this period we busily extracted any resource in sight, funded by eye watering volumes of debt, whilst squeezing every pip from globalisation and cheap labour.  Despite these tailwinds, an ONS survey highlights that the UK is 16% less productive than our G7 peers, and without this historically low interest period, a study by KPMG concludes that one-in-seven UK businesses would have collapsed by now.

Themes which might help explain these deficits include short-termism and systemic under investment in people and technology. In 2015, the UK had 10 robots for every million hours worked, compared with 131 in the US, 133 in Germany and 167 in Japan.  In 2010 UK businesses spent €266 on training per employee, against an average of €511 in the EU. A damning 2017 CIPD report sets out our trajectory “we are sleepwalking into a low-value, low-skills economy”.

As we push up against many natural, financial, and mind-set limits, business-as-usual becomes less viable by the day.  Consumption still powers our economy, but the more we consume, the more our planet burns. What makes this situation more perverse, is that consumption doesn’t make us happy, instead, shopping is more akin to distracting us from discontent. People are far more than simple machines There isn’t a single catch all cause for our personal dissatisfaction and productivity troubles, but it begs the question - how much of it relates to our mechanistic existence?      It’s a race to the bottom if our mind-set can’t extend beyond scale, predictability, and efficiency.  Whilst they’re the domain of machines, these characteristics don’t translate well to people. The eroding health of our minds, communities, and planet demand we grasp this distinction.  The next phase of the industrial revolution is happening now, powered by converging technologies, but in particular, automation and AI offer tantalising solutions to many of our woes at work.  Employees and employers share common ground - both overwhelmed by administration, complexity, and the volume of micro-decisions, and challenged by fragmented data, systems, and customer interactions.  This transactional, repetitive and shallow landscape leads to neither meaningful nor valuable work, but it’s where software bots and algorithms excel. If we deploy new technology but maintain the same working practices it negates the step change in capability, and becomes a further layer of complexity and disruption.  Moving beyond narrow solutions and utilising technology as part of a holistic recipe for change, enables the possibility for the reinvention of work itself. Technology can help us imagine new business models, make operations sustainable, and unlock potential in people. The work which so often burns people out is like bread-and-butter to automation, so what does this mean for people? The rise of the human-centred organisation acknowledges this question and highlights a pivot away from a culture that encourages sameness, predictability, and self-interest, and towards one that champions diversity, possibilities, and meaning.

Before we rejoice, there is a powerful force counteracting this trend - the algorithm.  The home to many of our biases, but none more pervasive than the machine ideology. Many great minds are contributing to the global AI arms race, but much of this effort focuses on manipulation and control, with an all-consuming desire to make us predictable and efficient consumers. Technology such as AI is neither positive nor negative, but it provides a glimpse into our ideas, beliefs, and intentions.  Digital tools are ubiquitous, and as computing power rapidly advances, we’ve found ourselves outsourcing our thinking, decision-making, and relationships to them.  With so many touch points we’re oblivious to how this scope creeps.

Reframing difference We owe our existence to difference, but a pervasive and skewed perception of normality squashes individual characteristics, and technology is speeding up this outdated concept of a template life.  I’m not alone in believing the last thing we need right now is more groupthink and conformity. Personalisation is a growing force - which marketers clocked some time ago - but once harnessed in learning and working environments it promises a huge uplift for productivity, personal growth and community life.  Whilst personalisation is a fundamentally important trend for the neurologically divergent, I wonder who it is that flourishes within our current educational, health, and working template. It’s a challenge to put neurologically diverse people into a single category, with variable thinking patterns, perceptions, and behaviours, often influenced by other people, circumstances, and environments.  When we created complex bureaucracies with endless rules, policies, and procedures, the result was a bias towards administrative tasks, and this naturally leads to a decline in opportunities for conversation, collaboration, and coaching.  The upshot of this is that we are misdirecting much of our time, because it is people and life that are complex, and these environments not only negate positive traits, but amplify negative ones too. We will all benefit by prioritising a performance mind-set over the need to control, and this subtle reframing moves us from who we should be, to who we could be.  From a young age we’re told to focus on things we can’t do, but it’s more powerful to encourage people to do more of what they’re good at, and also enjoy. Some neurologically diverse people love tool building and repetition, others thrive in stimulating and diverse environments, reaching states of flow when specific needs such as interest, wellbeing, and purpose align. We all require different things to be able to do our best work, and investing in people will permit discovery and personal reinvention.

It’s not just the neurologically diverse, or those facing mental health challenges that will benefit from this simple change in outlook - we all will.  We are all part of teams, families, and communities and these groups thrive because of difference, not in spite of. A prosperous future requires us to unlock potential in both people and technology, but more than anything else it requires us to use our mechanistic framing of the world more wisely.  This means working with nature, and also an acknowledgement that human beings aren’t machines, and by adopting this open the door to a radical embrace of diversity.

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