‘Truth’ #73 - Ever-advancing technology, Big Data and digitalization hold the keys to future success

To compound the over-reliance on measurement and data, the current drive is to “digitize” the above target-setting and performance-management procedures. This further reinforces the belief that the answer lies in the numbers, rather than in the actions and interactions of living and breathing human beings. However, it is misleading to believe that the collection and analysis of large quantities of data can represent, in any meaningful way, the inherent complexity, uncertainty and ambiguity of human interaction. Nevertheless, the temptation for this to happen has increased significantly with the emergence of Big Data and the algorithmic decision-making that sits at the core of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Worse still, the very sophistication implied by the accumulation and processing of masses of data imbues the resulting analyses with a ‘false concreteness’ that is far removed from the messiness and unknowability of what’s actually going on. As a one-time engineer, I can fully appreciate the benefits that the imaginative and judicious use of technology can bring to the human condition. At the same time, it is important that the implications of integrating AI and other forms of advancing technology into organizational design and management practice are properly considered. My scepticism is not about the development of the technologies as such; although I do believe that use of the word “intelligence” in relation to technology and machines does risk degrading the nature of human being. The irony might be that we end up dumbing down the qualities of being human to match those of the machines, rather than succeed in achieving the impossible task of raising machine ‘intelligence’ to match that of humans.

One of the biggest barriers to the human-centred use of AI in relation to organizational dynamics is that proponents seem to take it for granted that all such developments are unquestionably good - invented by ‘good’ people, with the intention of doing ‘good’ things, for the ‘good’ of other individuals, and thereby enhancing the common ‘good’. The real-world dynamics of human interaction are conveniently ignored, in favour of a utopian view in which there is universal wellbeing, co-operation and harmony, as well as near certainty in relation to the outcomes that will arise from these. This naivety undermines serious consideration of emerging technologies - both in terms of the genuine potential that these might have for improving the techno-human condition, organizational performance and societal wellbeing, as well as the risks involved in their misapplication and unforeseen consequences that might arise from their ill-thought- through deployment.

This is crucial, too, in relation to the challenge to management orthodoxy that is set out in this book. The more that human sense-making- cum-action-taking becomes dependent upon machine technologies, and governed by opaque algorithms, the more likely it is that we will become ever-more-firmly locked-in to currently established notions of organization and management practice. From a wiggly-world perspective, organization emerges in the complex interplay of people’s moment-to-moment interactions. These take place between conscious, sentient and self- conscious individuals, whose understanding of what’s going on is much more subtle and improvised than could ever be replicated by design. As Gary Smith points out, “computer programs do not possess anything resembling human wisdom and common sense. These programs do not have the general intelligence needed to deal with unfamiliar circumstances, ill-defined conditions, vague rules, and ambiguous, even contrary, goals”.16 That is, everyday life!

Technology can be put to good use, of course, in helping people to make better choices in appropriate circumstances. Provided that “better” is defined by human values and organizational/societal norms, as expressed in the moment of interaction. It can also facilitate delivery of the sought- after outcomes more efficiently than might otherwise be possible. What technology can’t do is to overcome the inherent wiggliness of organization, out of which whatever happens, happens. Or make ethical choices. The infusion of technology into everyday (organizational) life is a matter of ethics. It also needs to be framed within a humbler and complexity-aware view of what is credible and what the implications might be of integrating it into people’s day-to-day activities and relationships.

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