Innovation Requires a Common Sense Revival

The commoditisation of personal computing in the 1980’s held the promise of incredible breakthroughs in the workplace. Leveraging technology to automate mundane activities held the promise of allowing people more creative space.

In many cases it was simply used to make things easier.

Technology has been used to industrialise the white collar workplace - a leap away from creativity and innovation.

At the heart of workplace degradation is technology in its most basic form: the database. The use of the database has been taken to such extremes that we're left with mundane, generic workplaces that aren't much more effective than those of 30 years ago.

That isn't to diminish the contribution of the database. But, despite its importance, it has been misused.

While a great way to store employee information it should have never been used as a tool to select employees. Any attribute that fit nicely into an indexed, searchable field became a criterion for most job positions.

The meteoric rise of certifications and designations since the 1990’s can also be attributed to the database. There’s no evidence that these designations amount to any more than a day or three off work, yet people are lining up for them at an astonishing rate. In a time when the sum total of human knowledge is available for free, what is the attraction of certification? They're database friendly.

It’s easy to create and assess candidates for a job description that states: requires a Master’s Degree, five years’ experience and x, y and z certifications. Nobody has to spend days wading through CVs; they simply have to push a button to produce a list of ‘ideal’ candidates .

Better still, once those candidates are employees their commitment to professional development can be assessed simply by asking the database.  If the credentials are added at regular intervals they’re considered professionally developed.

Easy.

But it's all an illusion.

Nobody bothers to validate whether the employee has learned anything new, accomplished more, or is more professionally capable. Those are neither quantifiable nor searchable attributes so they’re not questioned.

That would be too hard.

I went for a job interview at one of the Big 5 consultancies a few years ago. My fourth and final interviewer asked me  ‘What do you carry in your toolkit?’.

My response was short and honest ‘Judgement’.  Supplemented by, ‘I have a number of accomplishments I can share with you.’

‘No, that’s fine.’

I knew then and there that I wouldn’t get the job. I knew because he had a bubble sheet that listed the ‘Best Practice’ methodologies, and he just wanted me to tell him which bubbles to shade.

How in the world would having a ‘toolkit of methodologies’ make me more effective for the job than evidence of prior success?

But it wasn’t about me. It was about the database.

As with the factory shop floor a century ago, workplace industrialisation dehumanises people. The goal is to build a more efficient machine. Not, a better machine.

And it's not just HR that has abused the database: many marketing departments draw conclusions from automated surveys and questionnaires rather than forming a richer picture by layering data with observation and discussion.

There is no organisational silo more out of touch with innovation than technologists themselves. Many IT departments have industrialised themselves into such an operational nirvana they can't see beyond their own internal systems to provide actual business solutions.

The modern workplace is beholden to the database. The white-collar didn't escape industrialisation after all. We're immersed in it.

Now, we need to innovate our way out. We need to celebrate the qualities that differentiate human from machine: judgement, common sense and intuition. Those gifts that have been relegated from the boardroom as being soft, intangible and irrelevant.

The technology options available today are staggering. The innovative opportunities unfathomable. But only when you layer the richness of people around technology - don't aspire to replace them with it.