Let us not serve the false gods of Data

As I see things like data analytics, artificial intelligence, and metrics become more prominent in our workplaces and our home lives, I’m left to wonder about our humanity and whether we are losing sight of that special human something that separates us from the machines. I read about incidents like the dog left to suffocate in an overhead compartment on a United Airlines flight or Wells Fargo opening random accounts people never wanted and I wonder about the data, rules, policies, and metrics and the best practices derived from them that were probably behind those terrible mistakes. What rote procedure was the flight attendant following when she decided it was ok to put a dog into airtight storage meant for luggage? How hard was the leadership at Wells Fargo pushing those metrics that employees felt compelled to open millions of fake accounts to improve their numbers? Where was the humanity in those decisions?

In less extreme examples, I see so much of our work reduced to simple data and metrics, inputs and outputs, all things that can be fed into an algorithm to spit out a solution. Even our performance as employees – as humans – is often nothing more than numbers and calculations kept in a digital file. The goal is to standardize performance measurement and make it easy for managers to grade us. If it’s really nothing more than figuring out once or twice a year whether we’ve met established goals then a computer can probably manage us better than a human can. Why bother having managers? In fact, as algorithms begin to consume vast amounts of data to make better strategic decisions you have to ask yourself why we need any leaders at all. If they’re not engaging employees on a human level to drive and motivate them to be more productive, creative, and innovative then we don’t really need them. Let our robotic overlords manage us if they’re just pushing points on a chart.

It’s time to bring humanity back into the workplace.

I believe that this is not only desirable but necessary as AI and automation continue their foray into every aspect of our lives. I’ve written my thoughts on automation before. Jobs will be destroyed. New jobs will be created. But all of our work will be fundamentally changed. The only thing left for us (for now) will be the inherently human tasks involving critical thinking and the liberal arts. If we don’t start figuring out what the future looks like without humans doing all of those soon-to-be automated tasks then many of us humans will find ourselves in trouble

“Data is not God.”

So, what are we to do? How do we retain our humanity as technology, metrics, data, and even best practices grow in importance and dominate the workplace? To start, I think we need to remember that data is not the be all, end all of everything. To quote Clayton Christensen from the 2016 Drucker Forum, “Data is not God.” And we should stop treating it as such. There is great value in using data to inform our beliefs and decision-making, especially in business, but if we mindlessly follow rules and best practices informed by the data we just might find ourselves mindlessly putting dogs in overhead storage.

Data should inform our decision-making, not make decisions for us. If we want to secure our place in the digital future we need to cultivate our humanity and focus on what makes us distinct from machines and algorithms. We must learn to harness our creativity, innovate within and outside our organizations, learn to be better leaders rather than managers, and focus less on STEM education and more on STEAM (the A stands for Art for those of you wondering).

If we play things right and prepare for the future, technology could even free us from the mundane, the number-crunching, the repetitive tasks, the countless spreadsheets, and allow us to focus solely on the things that inspire and engage us. Imagine if we spent less time collecting and analyzing data, answering emails, and filling out meaningless reports no one will read and more time building, strategizing, making, imagining. Just imagine (if you’re not too busy sorting data in a spreadsheet) what we could all accomplish if we freed ourselves from technology and data and let them fully serve and enable us instead of us serving the God of Data.

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