Being Human in the Digital Age
The digital transformation was one of the buzz words at this year’s World Economic Forum in January 2019. Walking the streets there were numerous signs for special events, receptions, panels, speeches or forums on the topic. All of them had in common that there was an atmosphere of excitement about the technological advances of the 21stcentury, the huge potentials and promised ahead of us. Or so it seemed.
Fact was that this appearance was deceiving and possibly misleading.
I had the privilege and honor of having been a member of the panel „The Art of New Business: Body, Mind and Soul of Digitization“ in the FQ Lounge. When asked about my opinion about the prospects of the digital transformation in my native country of Germany I cautiously mentioned that, first of all, not everyone is super excited about digitization. Indeed, I have observed that a lot of people (who knows, possibly the silent majority?) do have concerns and fears about the digital transformation. When I shared my observations I had expected that at the outset of my remark people in the audience would roll their eyes or shake their hands in disbelief about my skeptical opening statement. Interestingly, none of it happened. The opposite was the case. Indeed I sensed that the audience was relieved that finally there was a panelist who talked about their silent fears, the downsides of digital transformation in contrast to the many other events in Davos this week. I admit that the audience’s reaction surprised me. And at the same time it confirmed my impression that people hesitate or avoid speaking about their concerns and fears, at least in public. So, what’s true? Is digitization a blessing or a curse? My answer is that it can be both.
It is a fact that technology has brought, brings and will continue to bring many advancements that improve our well-being overall and offer huge business opportunities. On the other side, we will see lots and lots of jobs, businesses and even industries being eliminated or disappear. This is certainly one ingredient for being somewhat skeptical about the digital transformation. But we don’t even have to look so far into the future to identify an even more obvious drawback. Fact is that rates of disengaged workers, sick days and depression and burnout rates have been on the rise and have reached record numbers. A clear sign that the so lauded world of the digital age is not so bright after all. People complain about endless work, increased pressure and expectations at work. They are often either stuck in a hamster wheel or have become themselves addicted to the ever-accelerating race of infinite growth and corporate greed and cut-throat competition. They have become pawns in the grand chess game of modern business. They are functional, efficient, productive, and effective. And yet, they don’t behave or act like humans anymore but have become replaceable resources in a big machinery. Replaceable like machines because there is no space for burnouts, sickness or alike.
Corollary, the excitement about the digital transformation can and does co-exist with fears and concerns. Both are real, though not equally desirable or sustainable. I am convinced that fears and concerns cannot be resolved unless we take them seriously and deal with them. They have a common denominator. It’s the lack of humanness. In other words, being human often only matters in as much as a human resource, as one cost factor out of many. While resources in general and human resources in particular can be replaced the principal lack of appreciation of humanity at the core of our business activities sheds a long shadow on the wonderful promises and opportunities of the digital age.
In my 20+ years in professional project management I can say that projects rarely, if ever, fail because of faults in the products or some suboptimal processes. The number one cause of failure is ‘people’. Not because we make mistakes (of course, we do) but because we don’t recognize and value each other as who we are: human beings. Our personal motivations, visions and goals are appreciated only in as far as they benefit the project or product. There is no space for more, say, our belief systems, inner drives or purposes other than our relation to the jobs themselves. It’s like driving a car with a pulled handbrake and a weak battery. The human potential is left untouched. No wonder that so many projects still fail or struggle and are characterized by waste.
I have found that projects that create the space for individuals to uncover, explore, unleash their individual potentials and share it with fellow team mates turn into co-creation wonders that help delight customers, generate sustainable business value and develop happy and joyful workplaces while nurturing the thirst for continuous self-improvement. In other words, putting humanness at the core of business is the seed for mastering the challenges of the digital age and succeeding in the business world. It is time to acknowledge, explore and unfold our human potential to shape the present and future we truly want and need. Let’s be human in the digital age. Technology and digitization are welcome and valuable tools to serve this purpose and goal. Tools, but no more and no less.