“It requires wisdom to ‘know thyself’ and to decide what business environment does suit you best, or, if you feel inspired, what business environment to create.” A dialogue I co-wrote for authenticorganization.com in June 2019.
[Gerard] Recently I read an article in Gizmodo about algorithms taking over the hiring process. It starts with:
‘If you think looking for a job is already daunting, anxiety-riddled, and unpleasant, just wait until the algorithms take over the hiring process. When they do, a newfangled “digital recruiter” like VCV, which just received $1.7 million in early investment, hopes it will look something like this:
First, a search bot will be used to scan CVs by the thousands, yours presumably among them. If it’s picked out of the haystack, you will be contacted by a chatbot. Over SMS, the bot will set an appointment for a phone interview, which will be conducted by an automated system enabled by voice recognition AI. Next, the system will ask you, the applicant, to record video responses to a set of predetermined interview questions. Finally, the program can use facial recognition and predictive analytics to complete the screening, algorithmically determining whether the nervousness, mood, and behavior patterns you exhibit make you a fit for the company. If you pass all that, then you will be recommended for an in-person job interview.’
In our podcast we’ve had an oral conversation about artificial intelligence (May 2018) – in this written conversation it’s not about biases (there are many), but about candidates and employees getting exposed to these new ways of possibly reducing a human being to a set of traits, behaviors, skills for reasons of hiring, firing, talent management, development, strategic HR, and so on. Or just efficiency and profit.
Let’s say that it is a good idea to ‘know yourself’. Apart from feedback, conversations, oral and written tests, algorithms: what about their outcomes? To what extent these define you as a person? Should you comply with a procedure that uses these systems and tests? And once you’re in – can you get out?
Let’s take a dive.
[László] You captured the problem perfectly: “Know yourself”. The frame of reference in this question has been shifting increasingly away from wisdom; even when the imperative was articulated in Delphi, it was already a problem – and back then, sometime before 5th Century BC, the quality of thinking dealing with this question was, to put it mildly, quite generous towards our contemporaries in the business world, somewhat more superior than the quality of thinking today. Now it is generally accepted that HR managers are qualified to provide a frame of reference to this important question.
On a more practical plane, the process of shifting away from wisdom (a human quality) took a drastic turn with the emergence of management sciences in the 19th and 20th Centuries, simultaneously with the emergence of mass manufacturing. This historical moment was drastic in the sense that it subordinated people to processes vs. the other way around, which used to be the case…pretty much always, since pre-historic times and probably before. So we must pause and take notice of this if we want to understand in the proper context what’s happening with HR data, AI and related trends.
The factory, a fully mechanical environment, was a Procrustean bed that discarded the actual human qualities and kept the mechanical ones. Managers (a never before imagined type of bureaucrat) started to become mesmerized by KPIs while developing an aversion towards anything unmeasurable.
Just for contrast: in the 1920s and 1930s, when this process was already well underway, people still were looking forward with great anticipation to new volumes of poetry coming out from their favorite poets who, (similarly to composers of classical music) used to be “superstars”. Today poetry (which is anything but performance) is gone and has been replaced by movies which themselves are becoming more and more “performance-based”.
Culture has become “management culture”, which, as we can see from this simple example, is an oxymoron. From this point of view, there is absolutely nothing new in using algorithms to screen resumes and deploying AI to interview candidates. This process was already automated 50 years ago when recruiters started to use templates with checkboxes in the interview process (again: subordinating themselves to a process, throwing away their human qualities). Reduced to an algorithm, they can’t compete with algorithms.
Once again: there is nothing new or surprising about this, unfortunately. Unfortunately, because if we are not surprised or shocked by this, it means we have become intellectually numb and we don’t care.
The question of automation for hiring, training & development (development in this context is also an oxymoron), or almost anything else for that matter is not productivity! Under the aegis of productivity, it is hypocritical to talk about human values.
In my view we have two choices:
* Leave the context for business unchanged. In this case, the ideal scenario to work towards is companies without people. This is what is happening right now, as the proverbial Procrustean bed is getting ever shorter, and the consequences both macroeconomically and on an individual level are devastating.
* Take a 180-degree change of views and think of business as a community of people who happen to make stuff that is necessary: nothing more and nothing less.
If I represent the second view, I will refuse to submit myself to automated procedures both in the hiring process and in my job.
The question, I think, is this: what can we do to reintroduce in our work human factors like taste, beauty, intelligence, wisdom, and similar.
[Gerard] Thanks, László. Yes – if we talk KPI’s, reality is reduced to what can be measured. This reality does not have qualities. Taste and beauty, intelligence, wisdom, things we can touch – you mentioned them. And yet-even these in itself non-measurable things, are ‘measured’ in today’s business world. But hey, if you measure happiness, you need a happiness officer as well. Talking about wisdom…
By the way – I’m not certain if poetry nowadays is performance only, but next to movies, literature becomes more and more performance-based. Not that long ago one could write a splendid novel that sold only a few thousand copies – but that was fine since it was clear it was Literature. The writer could be pretty much unknown. Nowadays if you don’t ‘perform your thing’ in the media, sales will suffer.
Wisdom itself is not a strict and clear concept in philosophy or religion. If you would ask a bunch of philosophers what philosophy means you would get as many answers as philosophers interviewed. But wisdom or not – even here, numbers come in. In the Berlin Wisdom Project researchers estimate that wisdom peaks at your mid-sixties and declines after becoming 75 years of age. We have time.
This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill—you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember: all I’m offering is the truth. Nothing more. – The Matrix 1999
Let’s go back to the two choices you mention. Apart from the macro-economic consequences (who will buy the products and services if there are no jobs that generate income), globalization and the increasing concentration of wealth, there is a growing interest in meaningfulness. Will a newborn homo ludens be financed by the government by receiving unconditional cash? What pill will be taken? A scenario of companies without people is devastating if we don’t have an answer before the shit hits the fan.
So what is a business reality ‘with human factors? I personally like the concept of minimalism. I think that if we only produce (and buy) stuff that is necessary, we do need to add human factors like beauty, wisdom, taste and so on. Stuff with a soul.
Of course, we could buy a painting made by a machine (the robotic action painter) to cover an empty wall in our house (and in our soul?); or by a CD with variations of J.S. Bach’s Invention #13 in A minor (BWV784), made by an artificial network. They can both be beautiful but are not crafted with blood, sweat, and tears. Who cares? Well, we cannot ask the painter or composer what he or she had in mind while painting or composing; why their art is it is. A machine would not become our hero, no autograph needs, no selfie taken. This is not a sheer romantic view. If we look at chess, computers are way better nowadays but humans still play against each other. And use a chess program for their personal preparation. This is machines (automated or not) helping us and not the opposite.
The early ways of coding degraded programmers towards the level of a very simplistic way of communicating with a computer (BASIC: the Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code). Now we have a sort of Turing test for generated artificial art: if humans consider it outstanding art – cool. This ability to produce ‘outstanding art’, would make the artificial artist more human. But the robotic painter is as less human as any passed Turing test would make its underlying algorithm human. What is like us, is not us. And to go way back to the first questions – what outcome of any test, reflection and algorithm would represent us if human qualities cannot be measured?
Suppose we introduce these qualities back in our work. If we look at ‘making stuff that is necessary’ and we add our sensory capacities then we would make stuff (objects, services, movies, art, and so on) that is not only necessary, but also feels good, smells nice, looks good, is – in its origin – crafted with love, craftsmanship and pride. By the way, the senses mentioned above include thinking as well (next to hearing, sight, taste, smells and feeling) as the German philosopher Markus Gabriel writes in his book ‘Der Sinn des Denkens’ (Ullstein Buchverlage, 2018). To think about thinking, de-mystifying artificial intelligence. The crowd may be wise, but what have you to say (with pleasure I refer here btw to the manifest ‘You are not a gadget‘, by Jaron Lanier).
Okay. The way of working in this business community implies also a common understanding of how we interact with each other in order to have a meaningful business life(better- such a life in general). This certainly means no human robots, no hierarchy, no managers, no market-driven approach, no focus on financial growth (rather personal growth), no career planning, and many more. Besides, there are implications related to e.g. education, culture, environment, health, business-size. Now I funnel this all over to you. Let’s explore more what it could mean to introduce human factors as mentioned.
[László] What does it mean to introduce human factors into business life? This question itself is a testament to how bad things really are.
There are certain things that hinder the formation of communities; and what we’re really talking about is creating communities, since when people naturally organize themselves, they form communities. We’ve already mentioned a few of these things, here’s a summary:
* People subordinated to processes (in other words, people subordinated to efficiency)
* Related to this: mechanical functions and roles. The opposite of this is roles based on organic functions
* The highest context for an organization is profit optimization or economics in general. In other words, “the business of business is business”; in broader terms: the business of the State is GDP.
* Concepts based on false views. Some of these concepts on a macro level: unlimited growth, the invisible hand of the market; corporate and personal level: also unlimited growth, careers as vehicles of self-fulfillment, etc.
The common denominator behind these is, for lack of a better word: “quantitative values”.
Communities, on the other hand, have the following characteristics:
* The purpose of the community is to enable the self-realization (personal growth) of its members
* It recognizes and celebrates fundamental differences based on people’s predispositions and corresponding potentials, talents, and skills. Hierarchy is not a popular concept nowadays, but this is only because it is based on false fundamentals. Natural communities have always organized hierarchically; in fact, Nature (the cosmos) is hierarchical. There is nothing wrong with this.
* All concepts the community follows must be based on the right views. This is why thinking has always been so highly valued. Philosophers in the modern sense (the ones you referred to earlier) are not interested in the true contents of philosophy: the truth, freedom, wisdom, beauty, intelligence, etc. They are interested in individual opinions, which is anything but a community forming principle.
We can see the communities are built by free people who freely commit to following true concepts. People are thinkers, warriors, organizers, creators (organic functions), with nuances of philosophical, scientific, practical, artistic and other dispositions determining their organic roles. Only the right organic role provides a feeling of self-fulfillment.
We obviously can’t take a business organization and turn it into a community – however nice this may be. But we can observe that people are driven to organize naturally. For example, the creators with an engineering or scientific orientation tend to stick together forming technical startups and having a blast at it. In such a setting any imposed hierarchy is viewed with suspicion and rightly so – especially in the early stages of a startup. This “engineering” culture is killed once the startup is artificially stretched beyond its natural limits – the fashionable term for this is scaling. Beyond a certain point, people are stretched out on the Procrustean bed and it’s game over for them, and a new game begins for homo roboticus.
We can also observe the same drive in different settings: salespeople tend to be organizers with a natural drive to create wealth for the community(individualism is a false concept). They like to stick together and since natural integration is prevented by processes, which are rendered unintelligent by the concept of a mechanically defined efficiency, they end up fighting with the engineers or finance people. Natural integration is possible only if the factors I listed above are eliminated.
[Gerard] Sales fighting with engineers or finance people remind me of what a manager of a law firm once told me: their lawyers saw themselves as the ‘fee earners’, in contrast to the firm’s ’fee burners’. More or less the same counts for operating companies blaming their HQ to spend the OpCo’s earnings. And then in return HQ offers them the “here’s head office to help you”, support. Standard reaction: “No, no, thank you very much – we’re good”.
Adding to this ‘stretching’ of a community: as long as (to stick to your example of the engineer in this start-up community) the engineer works in this community, things are fine. According to the sociologist/philosopher Ferdinand Tönnies (Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft, 1887), the engineer might obtain prestige and status in this ‘organic family’ where utility and use are important. But one cannot work with this community – a mechanical approach is not possible. This, I think, is the point when the ‘stretching’ starts. Both typologies, Community as well as Society, are necessary to exist in order to think about them, but they are theoretical constructs and relational concepts. Unfortunately, you cannot design a community, nor plan one. The early stage of the start-up you mention is a nice example of how things evolve.
So far for ’This is you. Or not’. It requires wisdom to ‘know thyself’ and to decide what business environment does suit you best, or, if you feel inspired, what business environment to create.
Hopefully, this article has contributed to that in some way.
The original publication can be found here.