8 things that technology won't change

The world may well be changing faster than ever, but human beings aren't, say professors Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones.

by Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones
Last Updated: 13 Aug 2019

The world is awash with talk about constant change. We are forever reminded that we live in a VUCA world – Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. Organisations are obsessed with "digital transformation". Indeed, "digital" is in danger of becoming a magical word – like "strategic intent" 20 years ago. 

Of course, the world is changing - and fast. Rates of scientific and technical change are almost exponential – machine learning, robotics and genomics will undoubtedly produce profound transformations in the way we work and the way organisations are structured.

But not everything can change at once. When we point to changes, we must also acknowledge the continuities, by far the greatest of which is us.

Human evolution hasn’t accelerated in the last 20 years. In fact, we are remarkably similar to the human beings who walked the earth 10,000 years ago.

Here then are eight things which will stay the same regardless of technological progress - and which will continue to shape the challenges of organising work. 

1. Power is intrinsic to human relations

 All social structures are characterised by power relations – from families to businesses. It is true that organisations are becoming flatter, more matrixed and more networked so they can react more speedily to external change.

But Max Weber was right: organisations remain "imperatively co-ordinated associations"; we all dwell in a "house of power". What this means is that politics are unavoidable. The challenge is to understand the politics without politicking, to be neither a schmuck nor a shyster. If the former, you are exploited; if the latter, you are not trusted.

2. Employment may fall but we will always work

Work is a defining human characteristic. There has been much talk of the workless world as human labour is replaced by clever machines. But the end of work has been predicted many times.

Whilst employment patterns may change, this should not be confused with work. Work won’t go away – let’s think gardening, dancing, painting, repairing things. We will live in a world where work (paid and unpaid) persists both inside and outside organisations.

Good work gives meaning. The continuing challenge will be to connect with personal passions and to organise around enthusiasms to make work feel worthwhile.

3. You can’t include everyone  

Diversity and inclusion have become huge issues for obvious reasons: ethical considerations around equity, the changing shape of the labour market, and increased awareness that creativity increases with diversity and declines with sameness.

But there are necessary limits to inclusion. As George Homans memorably remarks, you can only have in-groups if you have out- groups: including some people always excludes others.

The leadership task becomes to build connections between groups who already have high levels of identification with each other, to become the thread that unites them.

4. Virtual will never replace face to face

We are hardwired for face-to-face communication – and not just with verbal language. Dancing for example remains a powerful form of communication.

So although modern technologies have transformed communications it is not a new idea that human communication is mediated by technology. Love affairs took place by letter, extended families were held together by telephones and workgroups have been able to share information faster with emails.

But none of these technologies has transcended the power of face to face. Even the most sophisticated video conferencing is dramatically improved if people have met each other first. In such contexts people read body language and a whole host of non-verbal signals.

Is Facebook’s HQ virtual?  Of course not! It is a small and shared space. So even if you are one of those tech savvy people with 250 apps on your phone, make time for face to face – it’s not going away.

5. Human beings need rules...

It has become fashionable to herald the "end of bureaucracy". But this fad is based on a profound misunderstanding. Max Weber’s original critique was not that bureaucracy was inefficient but that it was dehumanising.

Organisations need to systematise. When they do, people know what the rules are for. When they bureaucratise, the rules take on a life of their own.

People value good rules – they are a mechanism for fairness, clarity, scope for discretion, workability and legitimacy. The paradox is that rather than rules restricting our freedom, they guarantee it. So stop trying to abolish rules – we will always have them. Instead, make them good.

6. ...And traditions

The idea of homo economicus has dominated theories of organisations. But transactional and utilitarian accounts of work practices are inadequate. Even "modern" organisations – Apple, Facebook, Microsoft - have rich cultural seams defined by traditions, rituals and myths.

Apple employees, no matter how young they are, can tell you stories of the origins of the company – of Jobs and Wozniak; of Lisa, the prototype of the Macintosh. These are the building blocks of culture - and as Peter Drucker memorably put it "culture eats strategy". To navigate organisations successfully, you need to be a good anthropologist.

7. Big data doesn’t tell you everything

The blogosphere would have us believe that big data rules the world. It may enslave us or, who knows, it might free us. But no one seems to doubt its power.

But here is a simple observation: every time you aggregate data you don’t necessarily make it better.

All good data depends on qualitative distinctions - and making qualitative distinctions takes time. It can often seem chaotic or serendipitous, but making sense of the world depends on such judgements. Don’t confuse what you can quantitatively measure with what is qualitatively important.

8. The future isn’t all about technology

Okay, we are experiencing almost exponential rates of change in science and technology. But the impact will always be mediated by social, political and ethical choices.

We are not the passive victims of technology. We are the subjects of history, not the objects. Human beings control their destiny even if this isn’t always under conditions that they might choose. It’s not what technology does to us - but what we do with technology that will always count.

Rob Goffee is Emeritus Professor at London Business School and Gareth Jones is Visiting Professor at IE Business School. A new paperback edition of their book Why Should Anyone Be Led By You is out now

Image credit: Magda/Pexels

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