Monday, May 13, 2013

Technology & It’s Disempowering Power

I don’t regard myself as a troglodyte, but more often than not I am now the oldest person in the room.  That means I see value through the eye of experience before the lens of progress.

I’m getting disturbed by technology, not as a 19th century Luddite destroying the advance of machines, but as a humanitarian who wonders about the impact of technology on people in organizations and their ability to serve their clients and society.  Technology is becoming a barrier to humans working for humans.

It is clear to me, and everyone else who has been conscious for the last ½ century, that technology has advanced the human condition.  But trees don’t grow to the sky; have we hit the point of diminishing returns.  Let me explain.

I travel way too much, so many of my metaphors come from the traveler’s world.  A week ago I phoned my friends at the American Airlines Executive Platinum desk.  They’re the best.  They’re the most experienced agents trained to serve the airlines most experienced travelers.

Here’s what happened.  My wife and I were travelling to Canada from the US on the AA reward program.  We had the opportunity to move our travel up one day.  There is no change fee for me on this transaction so I called the Platinum desk.  Everything was ok, except because I was traveling to Canada and the exchange rate on the dollar had changed it was costing me 20 cents extra per ticket to cover landing fees.  Yep, 40 cents for both tickets – and the agent could not over-ride the system – she had to get approval from the rate desk.  This was a total disempowerment of her ability to act in the interest of her client and her company.

I see this all the time in organizations when I’m working on the inside as a consultant or on the outside as a customer.  Technology has taken away the flexibility for employees to act on good judgment.  The organizations need for consistency, efficiency, and low risk has emasculated the human’s need for empowerment, effectiveness, and respect.  What does that tell you about our basic belief about the value of people at work?

At what point does this emasculation lead to gutted enthusiasm?  Is disempowerment by technology a reason for such low employee engagement in today’s organizations?  When do people simply become automatons struggling to serve high order bits and bytes?

This wouldn’t concern me if humans were only mechanical, but they’re not.  The essence of humanity is emotion.  Human gratification comes from giving.  Employees get gratification by giving to customers – and we’re taking this away from them as their emotions are eroded by electrons.

Innovation is heralded today as the panacea for success.  Really?  In a world where many people are asked not to think how can Innovation flower?  Where will employees find fresh thinking at work when they’re asked to hang up their coat and minds at the door?