Productivity is Human

Productivity is Human

I gave a short talk to the British Institute of Facilities Management yesterday and thought I’d share the words that I kinda used. There’s a lot of opinion and not a lot of data in this, you may agree or you may disagree with what I say, both are fine.

The presentation is all pretty pictures made with Haiku Deck, you can see it here

Productivity is Human

The world of work is changing, we are regularly reminded about how technology is going to disrupt and revolutionise the way we are productive beyond recognition. We will no longer need an office, we will no longer need a desk, we will no longer need to meet each other in real life. The robots will do our jobs better, faster, with fewer mistakes, no bias, no rests.

But to be honest this technological revolution has entirely failed to deliver any productivity gains by the financial measures folk use to track these things. At best we have flatlined over the last 5 years but really we have gone backwards. And yet we continue to focus our hopes on technology saving us, on finance as our main measure, on profit as our purpose.

Given the 3rd Industrial Revolution seems to have failed to make us more product will this 4th technological revolution give us the utopia we a seeking, unlimited leisure time, freedom from labour, time to connect, relax, to be!

Or will it be a dystopian future, with no work for humans, no pay for humans, no purpose for humans.

The future is already here, and the most disruptive and high profile new technologies are the ones replacing humans. Your next taxi ride might be in a driverless vehicle. Think it’s decades away? Uber is already testing driverless taxis in Pittsburg…Now, Today! No humans involved!

Want to valet park your car at Dusseldorf airport? Well a robot will come and pick up your car, actually pick up your car and place it on a parking shelf. No humans involved!

Want room service, fresh towels, a snack, on your next trip to LA, well “RELAY” the hotel robot may well be beeping at your door with your order!…No humans involved!

“Great” say some, we’ll be much more productive, get more done, be more profitable.

“Robots could increase global productivity by 50% by 2025!”

But at what cost to humans? Will there be any work for us?

Depending what you read or hear robots could take up to 50% of our jobs in 20 years. And we might be sitting here really smug, with a professional career, thinking “yeah, but that’s the manual jobs, the physical jobs, the repetitive jobs the boring jobs, the dirty jobs, not my job!”

Time to burst that bubble. Watson the IBM Artificial Intelligence can already take a patient’s history and provide an evidence based diagnosis, and 5 evidence based treatment plans all without having to consult a human doctor. And Watson is much better at doing that then the best human doctors. If Watson can get rid of the Doctor, it won’t be long before it can get rid of you too.

If Ray Kurzweil is right, in 2045 Artificial Intelligence will surpass human intelligence, and at that point computers will grow beyond our comprehension. At that point computers will be able to rebuild, reprogramme, remake themselves and we won’t be able understand what they are doing.

To give you an idea of how much computing power will be available if you spend the same money you spent on your Macbook Air, say £1000, on a computer in 20145 you new computer will be 1 billion times smarter than ALL the humans!!!

And when that happens if we are not careful we get Skynet and the Terminator films come to life!

So is this inevitable? Is it the only way?

I believe we need to make some pretty big decisions about the way we think of work, what its purpose is and how much we make it for humans.

If the purpose of work is purely for profit, (and I have a massive problem with Milton Friedman’s cheerful ditty about the purpose of business being to make shareholders profit.) But if we continue to believe that money and profit are productivity for productivity’s sake are our purpose, then the future really does look bleak for humans who want to work. Remember the machines are faster than us, stronger than us, make fewer mistakes than us, don’t come in late like us, don’t have hangovers like us, don’t take breaks like us, don’t join unions like us.

But work and business shouldn’t just be about stakeholder gain, profit and productivity measures. At the same time Milton Friedman was spouting his guff, Kenneth Mason, President of Quaker Oats, was talking about business in very different terms. His direct quote is food based, wouldn’t you know, but I love this derivation of it

“Profit is to business as oxygen is to life, getting enough is vital but it’s not why we are here”

So there is a different way we can think about work and the opportunities this technological revolution might give us. We can decide to keep the humans, to celebrate the humans and to embrace the humans. Yes there will be a cost, but there will be a cost whichever way we go.

Human organisations are the ones making a real dint in the world right now, they are challenging the traditional institutions and they are thriving. The WorldBlu principles of democratic organisations is a great description of what these organisations are like.

  1. Purpose and Vision
  2. Transparency
  3. Dialogue + Listening
  4. Fairness + Dignity
  5. Accountability
  6. Individual + Collective
  7. Choice
  8. Integrity
  9. Decentralization
  10. Reflection + Evaluation

There are organisations that are doing this already:


Buurtzorg are a dutch primary care organisation who have grown to over 7000 (mainly nursing) staff. They have around 600 teams that are self managed and there are NO MANAGERS. There is a back office and there are coaches helping the teams but the teams make the decisions about how they work and how care is delivered. They trust their staff to do their job. They are a non-profit organisation with an 8% profit rate, 3% sickness absence and 8% overhead costs.


Yes, WD-40. Gary Ridge the CEO talks about the purpose of WD-40 being “Leaving positive lasting memories”. The staff are ‘tribe members’, they have rituals and ceremonies and they expect every tribe member to have and use their voice. Their leadership programme is open to every member of staff irrespective of role because everyone is expected to be a leader. In their last annual report they note an increase in sales of 24%.


DaVita say they are a community first and a company second. They take the organisation’s culture so seriously that they give staff a probationary period before they cross the bridge and join DaVita…and they actually cross a real bridge to join. DaVita are a fortune 500 company.

Alternative University Romania

“Helping people find happiness through liberty of choice”.

An alternative university founded around students and by students. Challenging the traditional models of education and building a community of learning The Alternative University believe that there are young people with the potential to become agents of change in Romanian society. Students discover and follow passions, create their own projects and innovative programs, and build an ecosystem of alternative learning.

These are organisations paying attention to the humans, this is what human productivity is like, this is what work with real purpose is like.

There are three elements that I think all of these organisations exhibit that are fundamental to being a human organisation.

They are social, communities, societies, tribes for connecting, collaborating, talking and working with others, they harness the distributed intelligence of all through human connections.

They accept vulnerability, the vulnerability of their leaders, who are human, who don’t know everything. The vulnerability of their staff who try things that don’t always work, who have bad days as well as good days. These human organisations allow us to be vulnerable humans, they give us the space to be vulnerable humans and they encourage us to be brilliant by accepting that we might not always be.

More than anything these organisations trust. They trust the people that are part of their organisations and teams to do thier job, to make decisions, to make good choices to try, to fail and learn, to grow, to deliver. They see the strengths of their teams first and trust they will be used and know that that is enough.

So what I believe is that we need to rethink what we mean by being productive, whichever route we go has a cost, if we build work that is productive measured in mainly financial terms the robots win, and the humans lose, If we build more human work ten there will be a financial cost. We have a choice, and if we decide we want a more human productivity we will need more human organisations to be productive in.

We know the alternative, it’s Skynet and the Terminator.

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