TEDxOporto: humanizing organizations in a tech era

When the TEDxOporto team called me some months ago to invite me to speak at their 2014 event, and they explained that the motto for this year’s edition would be “À Flor da Pele” (it could roughly be translated as “Nerves on Edge” and it relates to strong emotions and visceral feelings), I immediately knew what the main theme of my talk would be.

So this past Saturday, the 8th of March, I went on stage to talk about “Humanizing Organizations in a Tech Era.”

AnaTEDxOporto_1

Me on stage. Photo by TEDxOporto

This post is a summary of the presentation I delivered in my native Portuguese and I’m writing it because I want to share with everyone a written version of the talk, complemented with links to some interesting resources I found while doing some research. It also gives me an opportunity to share a summary that my non-Portuguese speaking friends can understand.

EMOTIONS

But first some personal notes: I was nervous, really! I was not sure if the topic would resonate with most of the attendees (over 600 people I would estimate). I felt unprepared as I had a hectic week prior to the event, including a tiring 9hr car travel the day before.

But then the moment of truth came: it helped that the organization pampered the speakers with professional makeup artists and coffee. It also helped that the opening musical act was sooooo my kind of music that I started to relax in my chair tapping my feet to their tunes. And then… well… I just went on stage feeling just the right amount of adrenaline🙂

I think the talk went well (I even managed to stay rather calm when realizing in the opening slide that, despite all precautions, some letters where distorted, something that happened in 3 or 4 other slides🙂 it wouldn’t be a proper talk without some Murphy’s law in it, right?).

But I have to share a little secret with you: the most emotional moment for me (I cried and laughed and danced and sang…), the one where I had my emotions on edge was when “Som da Rua”, a communitarian orchestra that promotes social inclusion through music, did the final musical act. I first came across this project last year and had the immense good fortune of lending my voice to one of their shows at Casa da Música. Seeing them perform again, this time from the audience, felt like a true and precious gift! 

THE TALK

The narrative of my talk was the following: we live in a time of fast change, increased complexity and global crisis in a truly interconnected world. A time where the introduction and adoption of technology is running faster and faster. This moment we are living in is posing us some questions and challenges, namely as to what it will bring for the future of our societies, institutions and work.

At the same time, we’ve witnessed a growing de-humanization of our society and organizations. And on this last quadrant some clues might help explain how we’ve arrived here. Many organizations – for-profit companies, public service institutions and others – are based on the concept of the machine-organization, heritage of the industrial era. A world of task division and mounting pressure, where machines and people are equally treated as “resources”: its visual metaphor would be the assembly line [side note: 2013 marked the 100th anniversary of the introduction of Ford’s modern assembly line].

The machine-organization is causing some worrying effects on its people, namely those continuously reported by Gallup. In their latest survey, published last year, Gallup estimates that globally around 87% of employees are completely or partially disengaged from their work. That’s a staggering percentage: almost 9 in 10 people do not feel passion, motivation or pride towards their work and workplace.

Simultaneously, we are experiencing what some authors and experts on the world of work call the race against the machine: computing power is growing exponentially, some tasks are increasingly being performed by machines, for the sake of increased efficiency or error reduction, and this trend is on the rise, with consequences to our jobs that we are still trying to make sense of.

Considering all this – growing de-humanization, machine-organizations, low levels of engagement at work and the race against the machine – what should be our response?

MY TAKE: WE SHOULD EXPLORE WHAT MAKES US UNIQUE, WHAT MAKES US DIFFERENT FROM MACHINES.

That is our creativity, our ability to come up with ideas and implement them, to collaborate and connect to other human beings, to develop relationships and comprehend others from an emotional perspective. In short, our heart as the following great quote from David Brooks illustrates:

The role of the human is not to be dispassionate, depersonalized or neutral… Unable to compete when it comes to calculation, the best workers will come with heart in hand.”

WE NEED TO FIND WAYS TO BRING BACK HUMANITY TO OUR WORK AND OUR ORGANIZATIONS. How can we do that? Here are some proposals:

We need to really understand others – be they our customers, our citizens, our employees or our colleagues – and this means putting ourselves into their “shoes”, into their life context and expectations and concerns. To quote a famous Depeche Mode song:

But before you come to any conclusions

Try walking in my shoes

You’ll stumble in my footsteps”

This means understanding and working the concept of empathy: our ability to emotionally understand others and to analyse different situations from their perspective. No wonder social sciences – sociology, psychology or anthropology – are making their way into our organizations again, as we clearly need help to bring this social and emotional (or should I say human) dimension to business.

Helping is also what the discipline of Design Thinking can do with different techniques, such as journey maps, empathy maps and others, that allow us to better understand others.

But empathizing to improve our understanding is not sufficient. We then have to instil in our work a sense of caring for others and this means humanizing what we, in business or marketing lingo, usually call the touchpoints: those moments where we are in contact with a certain organization, be it the store, the online platform we use to interact or the moment the service that organization provides is being delivered.

An area which is usually not a symbol of humanization is the call center. But even here some companies are daring to think differently and humanize it. See the case of American Express which changed the profile of people it was hiring for their call centers, looking for experience in the hospitality segment, and also abandoned the rigid scripts. The end result was an increase in customers’ satisfaction and their propensity to recommend the company to others (measured by the Net Promoter Score) and also a rise in their employees’ satisfaction and retention.

We also need to rethink how we approach work. Today we know much more about what motivates us. We know that we develop our potential when we feel we have autonomy in the way we perform our work, that through that work we are continuously learning thus developing a sense of mastery and that we do all this with a sense of a greater purpose.

We also know of the importance of public, and timely, recognition of our work, both by our peers and our bosses, a fact most organizations today forget or treat as a sporadic event. It is as if in the world of the machine-organization we somehow forget how to say “thank you”, “you did a great job”, “I couldn’t make it without your help”.

While I was working on the talk I came across a series of photos from David Oliete that portray Los Castells, a Catalonia tradition declared in 2010 to be among the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. I contacted David and he gave me permission to use one of his photos on my presentation (gracias David!). 

David Oliete

Photo of Los Castells by David Oliete

To me his series of photos represented a visual metaphor to what our organizations need to build: a sense of connectedness building on the fact that each of us is a piece (an important piece!) of a bigger puzzle, that each of us knows the role we play and that we feel that together we contribute to something greater – a sense of higher purpose if you want to call it that.

And here I think that technology can help. We are more used to thinking about technology as a de-humanization factor: one that brings isolation and breaks social relationships. But if we think carefully, technology is no more than an amplifier of behaviours, both individual and collective. The question we need to ask ourselves is this one:

ARE WE USING TECHNOLOGY TO AMPLIFY OUR HUMANITY OR JUST OUR VANITY?

I deeply believe in technology, especially the so called social technologies that help us communicate and collaborate on a one-to-one, one-to-many or many-to-many basis, as a humanization enabler.

And technology as a humanization enabler can also be applied inside our organizations. How? Here are some examples:

1) technology can help give voice to employees, no matter where they are geographically located or sit in the org chart. This is especially relevant to the introverts that by nature feel usually less comfortable voicing their ideas or opinions in meetings but that sometimes find though technology a “safer” way to expose their views on certain topics

2) technology can also help humanize employees’ profiles and allow people to get to know their colleagues better. Take the case of Zappos, as reported by founder Tony Hsieh in his book Delivering Happiness, that displayed random employees’ profiles to other colleagues once they logged in to their computers each day. If you’ve ever worked in a mid-sized/big company you know how awkward it feels to bump into a colleague in the corridor and know almost nothing about him/her.

3) technology can also help stimulate support and fellowship in difficult times. That’s exactly what BASF did on their internal online collaboration/connection platform when employees around the world wanted to manifest their support to their Japanese colleagues that in 2011 saw their country affected by the terrible earthquake and tsunami

4) technology can also help reduce distances. Many organizations already understood that talent can be anywhere in the world. Companies like Automattic, that powers WordPress, work with talent that is geographically distributed (some work from home) and here technology is a key factor to enable their communication, collaboration and their sense of connectedness [while I was writing this my friend Bruno share with me an interesting post about how the GitHub folks work %& communicate]

5) and technology can also facilitate internal recognition and praise as I’ve shared here before (I love this story so I had to share it on stage of TEDxOporto)

All the examples I’m giving seem live trivial or insignificant moments. But humanization is neither a campaign nor a sporadic action. It is made out of apparently small actions done by each of us on an everyday basis.

Let’s work on continuously bringing back humanity to our work and our organizations, with technology as an ally!

JustHumanizeIt

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