Technology Needs to Serve Us, Not Rule Us

For the past 20 years or so, since the internet was established, futurists have projected a near-future paradise in an information-rich, automated world of smart cars, smart buildings and smart workplaces.

Progress tends to come in little bursts; for example the period of (approximately) 2008-2012 when a critical mass of individuals obtained smartphones and tablets. Now these gadgets are ubiquitous, but in some respects, this is only the beginning. Dramatic social changes are starting to flow from the rising numbers of mobile, connected individuals, especially knowledge workers. This is having a huge impact on the organization of the workplace and the role of managers.

The old, static, formal office is disappearing in many sectors, to be replaced by more mobile teams of people. Managers will have to be much better communicators and motivators, unable to rely on implicit fear and 'command and control'. The workplace will become more diverse. It will be easier for people with child-care responsibilities, overwhelmingly though not exclusively women, to stay in work and get promoted. In the UK, the proportion of the workplace from minority ethnic backgrounds is projected to rise to around 20% in the next few decades.

Another technological development is 'Big Data' - that is to say, gathering systematic intelligence of our habits and preferences as employees and customers. It holds open the possibility to refine and improve the management of people, helping to motivate and retain talented individuals. For example the ability to monitor employee motivation continually, at both a group and individual level, can enable managers to pick up on indications that some people may wish to leave, and intervene to improve their prospects. There could be even greater impact in marketing, as service companies are better able to anticipate and meet the needs of loyal customers.

Despite this progress, our everyday experience of technology is not always smoothly liberating. Sometimes, automated customer services place a short and inappropriate list of options for the frustrated consumer. Writers of TV drama sometimes satirize such non-service, portraying our hapless hero as being trapped behind a technological wall of bureaucratic indifference. Meanwhile, an ever-present fear is that 'Big Data' will rapidly become 'Big Brother' - snooping on us as workers and consumers and compromising our privacy.

The answer to getting the best out of technology is, first and foremost, to get the best out of people. Inventions should be our tools, not our masters. The reason new gadgets sometimes frustrate is that we haven't always modernized our management approaches commensurate to the advances in technology. We often have intelligent IT, but unintelligent organizational design. If management is poor, and the website programmers are not communicating well with product designers and the marketing guys, the atmosphere in the workplace will be tense and the customer experience patchy, at best.

A huge lesson from recent scandals - LIBOR-rigging, horsemeat passed off as beef, illegal phone-tapping - is the primacy of ethical conduct as the only way to guarantee trust and excellent service. The best protection against Big Data being misused is to have Big Ethics written into a company's founding principles and managerial codes of conduct, with real consequences for serious breaches.
As I wrote on an earlier blog, organizational design and the craft of management are in need of a major overhaul, away from a narrow focus on the bottom line, transactions, costs and resources, towards encompassing an understanding of the company as a living community, that operates best when people are empowered.

This new philosophy will get the best out of people. It will also get the best out of technology.

• The Management Shift: How to Harness the Power of People and Transform Your Organization for Sustainable Success, by Vlatka Hlupic, published by Palgrave Macmillan October 2014. See