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October 13, 2014
The digital worker redefined
By: Mark McDonald

Digital technologies are fundamentally human technologies. Digital technology raises human ability by creating breakthrough and disruptive levels of high performance. It does this because it increases the information intensity and connectedness of just about everything. If you think about it, mobility, analytics, cloud, social, smart objects all help people accomplish tasks, make better decisions, and amplify their performance.

Extending the work metaphor into the digital world entails more than swapping trowels for tablets. It requires rethinking the need for new forms of work and then describing the characteristics of that work. This needs to go beyond outlining the division of labor between man/machine and the work interface. Past predictions regarding what machines would ‘never’ be able to do—like driving a car—exist only to be proven wrong.

Robert J. Thomas, Alex Kass and Ladan Davarzani have looked at the nature of work in a digital enterprise in their piece entitled, From Looking Digital to Being Digital: The Impact of Technology on the Future of Work. This post seeks to establish an argument describing a human centric view of digital work rather than an organizational view. Exploring the human centric view presumes that working 'by the numbers' is not acceptable as it reduces us all to just a commodity resource in a business process.

The reason for a human definition of digital work

Changing returns to productivity dictate the need for a new view of the digital worker. For the past 100 years investments in technology raised labor productivity with returns flowing to workers. Investments in digital technology change all of this. Digital investments are capital intensive and generate greater returns to that capital rather than labor – driving wages down for the majority of the workforce.

Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee pointed out the shift in their book Race Against the Machine. This trend has significant social, political and economic implications often presented as a political issue – the 1%. Income distribution is skewing as technology shifts the source of productivity gains from labor to capital.

Digital strategies and approaches exacerbate this this point concentrating on further waves of automation and integration. But doing old things cheaper with new technology creates a false sense of productivity improvement – one measured by lowering per unit labor production. That view focuses on fewer workers, but not necessarily more value and income flowing to the workforce.

Raising the value of human productivity is essential to sustain a growing digital economy. Consumer power wanes without stable and rising incomes generated by increased returns to human labor. This drains purchasing power essential to economic health and growing prosperity.

The real digital/human revolution is in changing the ability of humans to create value. Without that change, every person becomes a fungible resource, readily replaced by technology, customer self-service or information.

New forms of work must be more than what machines cannot or should not do.

Digital work involves more than replacing physical hammers with touch screens. The future is not a modern day John Henry contest pitting human against machines is a lose-lose proposition. The future is not the same as assigning people to low margin tasks that do not warrant automation. Relegating people to work that is beneath machines presents a dystopia characterized by beige cubicle drudgery. And that’s the bright side!

In these scenarios people are mindless ‘proles’. Rather than doing left over work, we need to re-imagine people, and reimagine their work with a mindset of increasing returns to human ability rather than substituting either physical or cognitive muscle with machines.

The characteristics of new digital workers must center on the value creating potential of people

Brynjolfsson and McAfee in their subsequent book The Second Machine Age, point to a combination of humans and machines as producing the best results in fields such as grand master chess. But what does that work in combination look like and how does it create value that accrues to individuals as well as capital investors?

Consider situations with the following characteristics as representing opportunities for generative combinations of people and machines:

  • Generative situations where Individual interactions and exchanges present a jumping off point for multiple possibilities and value creating opportunities. Making something out of nothing requires a multi-purpose, dynamically re-deployable resource that can change in an instant to meet planned and unforeseen situations – a capable human being.

  • Environments with significant variability and limited predictability where further standardization merely drives commoditization rather than value creation. Variation is a source of value in a world of machine-based standardization, particularly when you cannot proscribe the environment.

  • Contextually complex situations where qualitative intuition outweighs quantitative information. While it’s possible for machines to know the data and even infer human emotions from interactions, there are times when people need to work with people.

  • Emotionally charged situations requiring authentic empathy in response to fear, lack of confidence, limited understanding or controversy. Combinations of people and machines work best whenever ‘how you deliver results’ is more important than the result itself.

  • Requirements for building trust and confidence with other people: customers, business partners, regulators or others. Trust is the human part of this equation, verification the information intensive machine side.

These are some of the characteristics that come to mind when thinking about the work situations where productivity returns would flow back to people. I am sure there are others and encourage you to suggest/discuss these in the comments to this post.

Re-valuing work in the digital world requires adjusting our approaches to human capital, resources, jobs and organization design. Some of those changes include:

  • Opening opportunities to work with customers in new ways, no longer surrounding them with pre-designed products and services, but engaging them in ways that genuinely raise their ability. Experience is just the start, ability sustains value.

  • Redesigning work away from tasks and toward broad outcomes, making for interesting and engaging work experiences.

  • Measuring people and their individual contributions in more subjective and differentiated ways, challenging HR’s current focus on standardization and comparability.

  • Allocating rewards and responsibilities based on results rather than resources managed - redefining middle management in a digital world.

  • Shifting HR from being an enabling or administrative function to one that achieves its ambitions as a transformative and accretive activity in the business.

Related posts:

Everyone and everything is an actor on a digital stage

Raising human ability is the expectation for everything digital

Twelve truths that will become self evident in the digital decade

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