It’s time to stop running businesses like machines

March 16, 2016

By Claire Warren, 10 March 2016

Management thinker urges audience at CIPD event to prioritise humanity over hierarchy

Half of all jobs will be replaced by machines in the future unless we start to think about “what is so important about being human”, according to author and business leader Margaret Heffernan.

“If we don’t start identifying what the value of being human is at school and at work we will lose it,” she told an audience at ‘The Future of Work is Human Un-seminar’, organised by the CIPD and Jericho Chambers this week. “There is a huge level of distrust in leaders, which is creating a fantastic level of distrust in institutions and a groundswell of opinion that people are the problem.”

Heffernan pointed to three factors she believes cause good people to behave in ways that exacerbate these problems: fear, bureaucracy and hierarchy.

Fear, she said, starts in an education system that favours good boys and girls and where there is little scope for exploration and discovery, while bureaucracy – notably KPIs and targets – creates an “I’ll do as I’m told attitude”. Hierarchy, in turn, worsens this sense of fear and conformity.

“We have been brought up to do as we are told. People have learned not to speak up even though at work that is what we want them to do. We need them to be able to think unafraid,” said Heffernan. In Rotherham, for instance, where between 1997 and 2013 at least 1,400 children were sexually exploited, “everybody was doing exactly as they were told”.

There are places, however, where humanity shines through, she said. Following a plane crash in 1972 in which 118 people died, the aviation industry realised that the one thing it needed to do was “not compete on safety”. In 1960, there was a one in a million chance of being in a crash. Today, thanks to a “just culture” that enables people to speak up on safety, that is now just one in 20 million.

Organisations are social, concluded Heffernan, “but running them like machines has turned the people in them into machines”, which is one of the reasons it will be so easy to replace them with technology.

Heffernan has run companies in both the UK and the US and is the author of five books, including Beyond Measure, A Bigger Prize and Willul Blindness.

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