HUMANS AS INTERCHANGEABLE PARTS: A LOOK INTO THE FUTURE

By Logan Monaco, MS
Conbrio Associate

Humans are adept inventors. Our ability to make and repurpose the different elements of our environment to suit our needs has brought us a long way – from sparking two rocks together for fire to manned space flight. Creativity and innovation, it can be argued, have made our lives better.

Interchangeable parts is one such innovation. Think autos, modular furniture or any other object with multiple components. In many cases, if one piece breaks, a mechanic or do-it-yourselfer can replace the piece quickly and cheaply, without having to overhaul the object completely or replacing it all together.

Organizations have tried to make people interchangeable, too. You or I interchangeable with the man or woman down the hall. There are instances where it has yielded amazing results and others where it hasn’t worked out well at all.

Contract workers take the interchangeable concept to the extreme. When one of the regulars is out ill or on maternity leave, a contract worker comes in to cover the gap. When a skill is needed in the communications department or on the phone bank, a temp or two are recruited to get over peak needs.

Where interchangeability has failed, it’s because repetition led to disengagement. People didn’t develop or grow. Innovation died. The most expeditious way of doing things won, even if it wasn’t the best way. And when one of those interchangeable people left, leaders discovered they weren’t so interchangeable after all. They found it difficult to find a replacement with the right skills and character.

What’s the future of interchangeability when it comes to people? One view is that organizations will need fewer and fewer human beings. They’ll be replaced by technology, even robots. Science fiction writer, Isaac Asimov, predicts that “robots will take over 30% of our jobs within the next 10 years.” Ray Kurzweil, director of engineering at Google, predicts that robots could reach human intelligence within the next 15 years. Perhaps.

For now, we’re betting on people and less traditional interchangeability. More specifically, we’re betting on people who can learn, adapt, create and innovate. We’re betting on people who Stanford professor Carol Dweck says have growth mindsets. They’re willing to put in the effort to learn, learn again and learn more. They’re willing to adopt new technologies. They’re willing to learn new ways of working. They’re willing to keep going, not stopping. Like Renaissance painter and sculptor Leonardo da Vinci, the worker of the future will be part artist, part technician. She will be learned in both managing and leading. She will exemplify author Daniel Pink’s prediction that a Master of Fine Arts is the new MBA.

When working with others, these part-artists, part-technicians will be comfortable sitting at a round table, a la Arthur and his knights. Equals, propelled by shared mission and beliefs. They’ll happily move in and out of a leader role, becoming player-coaches depending on circumstances, designing the play and participating in its execution. They’ll like working for leaders who play the role of orchestra conductor, guiding these people to create and then home in on viable solutions. The conductor’s concern will go beyond the bottom line to care for people. But our worker of the future will be unproductive working for leaders who insist on sitting at the head of the table handing out orders.

In some instances, we have seen situations where leaders bring these people together to act as a hive mind, structuring and deconstructing teams, assigning and participating in projects and nurturing development. We predict more of this approach in the years ahead.

Professional development for these new kinds of workers will take place by doing. Doing by themselves and doing with others who have experience. They’ll avoid specialization by learning and constantly challenging themselves. The conductors will organize projects thoughtfully, with a long-term focus.

How adept will organizations be in dealing with the new-age worker? Some are already successful doing it. For others it will be a struggle. Companies moving in the direction of harnessing the power of new-age workers include Pixar, WL Gore and Red Hat. It’s one of the reasons they attract top talent and remain at the forefront of innovation.

For those that will struggle, perseverance will pay off. They’ll find employee engagement and retention numbers will go up. People will be happier and the organization will be better. What happens if an organization decides to do nothing, to stay where it is? Odds are the result will be ugly.

Logan Monaco holds an MS in Organizational Psychology and works on a range of organizational development issues. His specialty is assessments.