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Jan Hills

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Future of HR: The impact of technology on thinking


In this series I take a look at the future of HR, not through predicting the next structure HR will adopt or giving you demographic trends but through applying a greater understanding of how our brain works and what that application may mean for how HR help organisations achieve greater performance through their people.

Does work allow you to be human?

As managing our brain leads to greater productivity and deeper understanding I’m encouraging you to read mindfully. The questions below, plus any you may feel are relevant will help you to read the article whilst considering what the ideas mean to you. Doing this creates greater insight.

  • How do people work in your organisation?
  • Are they busy all the time and rushing from one event and decision to the next?
  • How does the organisation help people to manage their capacity?
  • Does your culture encourage recuperation?

What’s the quality of people’s thinking?

In this series on what will impact the future of HR you would expect to see something on technology but I wanted to take a different angle on technology’s impact and one that I think has far greater implications for how HR help organisations be successful through their people than no end of technological advances.

HR and the future of technology

There have been quite a few articles and news items lately about robots taking over roles that have traditionally been done by humans.

Most are scaremongering and the brief history of technology as presented by the media seems to me to be:

In the 1980s people in low-skilled jobs lost out to technology and now professionals are seeing their jobs go the same way. However, some commentators like Lynda Gratton of London Business School say that this has already happened in most of the places it is likely to happen.

What has occurred is what she calls a ‘hollowing out’ of mid-level roles as computers or robots take over repetitive, predictable work. This has a number of implications for HR, like how do we train people to do more skilled work when the mid-level jobs which were part of the career and experience path have disappeared? Think about trainees in most of the professions like lawyers and accountants and many entry level manager/producer roles.

The impact of technology on ability

But maybe more worrying is the impact of technology on a vital human ability. When we think about the use of technology through the lens of how our brain works the way most people use technology creates overload and impacts how we think, how we pay attention and our capacity to remember and learn.

Research estimates that people at work are interrupted every 10 minutes although informally people say it is more like every 3 minutes. It takes 23 minutes to get properly focused again.

Trend consultant and writer Linda Stone says we’re addicted to inattention.

Alongside these technology based interruptions is the design of organisations themselves. Today’s technology overload coupled with open plan office design, hot desking, wall to wall meetings, the worship of busyness and our lack of understanding of the brain’s capacity all reduce our thinking abilities.

Trend consultant and writer Linda Stone says we’re addicted to inattention: “Constantly scanning for opportunities …in an effort to miss nothing” with what she calls “continuous partial attention.”

Alongside the impact on our attention-span is a rise in expectations about the speed at which we should be able to get information or respond to communications.

Psychiatrist Edward Hallowell has called this the “hyperkinetic work environment,” and we can all recognise its features:

  • constant interruptions
  • demands to always be “on duty”
  • difficulty remembering things and maintaining focus
  • feeling stressed most of the time

In short we have designed organisations where we have eliminated the very skills that differentiate us from computers. We have designed organisations to prevent us doing the very thing that makes us human and the very thing that computers and robots can’t replicate.

Humans are designed to think: to be original, to reflect on possibility and to dream up new and innovative things.

Coping strategies

One of the ways people try to manage this busy technology dependent work environment is through “multi-tasking,” and those who think they’re good at it will tell you they do it with pride.

It’s now widely believed that multi-tasking is an essential skill for survival in today’s work environment. Many bosses either implicitly or explicitly expect their staff to be proficient multi-taskers.

But actually multi-tasking is not only impossible it actually reduces our thinking ability.

Psychologist Katherine Moore at the University of Michigan has found that irrelevant cues introduced when a person is concentrating hijack the attention system and impair cognitive performance.

And Glenn Wilson of Kings College London has demonstrated that switching between different technologies, like emailing and answering the phone constantly, reduced IQ scores by 10 points.

Multi-tasking is not only impossible it actually reduces our thinking ability.

There is also evidence that multi-tasking has an impact on long-term memory and our ability to learn.

At Columbia Karin Foerde has found that those who learn a task without distraction performed much better and remembered more than the group who were distracted with noises such as a phone during learning.

And it’s not only immediate recall that was affected: brain scans during the test showed that the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for encoding long-term memory, was only active in the group who were not distracted.

Thinking: uniquely human

So many work environments are reducing the essential human skill to think.

A number of companies are addressing this, notably Pfizer which – recognising that employees were spending between 20-40% of their time on non-core work – developed their ‘Pfizerworks’ platform and outsourced community which provides solutions to non-core low value work.

The platform includes research, data analysis and document creation, transcribing meeting notes, flowcharts and similar. In less than a year they estimate employees gained 66,000 hours allowing them to focus on stimulating and motivating high value work.

They found it also allowed employees to better collaborate and network to contribute to strategic development. Part of the success of the initiative is that the leadership trusted employees to manage the outsourced components of their work which set up a positive cycle of increased autonomy and trust leading to employees taking even more responsibility. 

HR’s thinking role

Allowing the unique human ability to thrive at work surely must be the role of HR.

Somehow we seem to have forgotten that what is unique about humans is thinking.

Maybe because we have been too busy to think ourselves. And there is another aspect to this. The areas of the brain doing all of this make up what’s called the default system.

In a thought-provoking review, Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, who is an associate profession at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, says that when we’re resting, our brains are not idle or unproductive.

They are, she says, in fact carrying out essential mental processes that affirm our identities, develop our understanding of others’ behaviour and instil an internal code of ethics. They’re also making sense of what we’ve recently learned, sorting through our thoughts and resolving contradictions and reflecting on our actions and motives.

Allowing the unique human ability to thrive at work surely must be the role of HR.

This seems a bit less weird when you step back and take some downtime yourself. You know that whilst your mind is wandering you’re probably replaying conversations and rewriting mistakes as a way of learning. Perhaps you’re mentally rehearsing the presentation you’re working on or having that difficult conversation with the boss in your head, or lingering over the satisfying praise you got for helping a senior manager.

Maybe you’re sorting through all those mental to-do lists and ruminating about how you can run your life better. You may find yourself recalling scenes from childhood and then jumping into how you want to be in the future.

And you might give yourself a kind of personal performance review, questioning how you have treated others, what you could do better and where you made a difference. And of course that’s what each and every employee is doing too.

If you give them a little space to think.

People who take time to reflect are surer about their own point of view, tend to be more confident, understand others’ motives and goals more accurately and are better at making complex decisions and solving complex problems.

Sounds like a high performing employee we would all like in the organisation.

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Jan Hills


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