Let’s face it, more and more businesses are opting out of the ‘human touch’ these days. It’s often simpler, faster, and usually cheaper to send an email, a text or WhatsApp message. I have often been asked why I make the time to attend a meeting, or speak with a person before taking a decision that concerns or relates to them. Professionally, it seems fairly easy to become an impersonal audience to the reality that surrounds us. Managers can easily fall prey to making profit under pressure, and lose the ‘human touch’ at the greater expense.
In many spheres, machines are stepping up to make things in a fraction of the time that it takes a human. The 3D printer has made the stuff of science fiction movies come true before our very eyes, and there is a lot more to come. Truth is, Technology has not taken away the value of creativity. An outstanding artist can still produce a piece that takes the breath away, without begrudging the colour printer’s ability to produce a hundred printed copies per minute.
The danger is in forgetting the basics of ‘how to’ in our different areas of expertise. Business leaders need to find the point where depending on digital solutions does not cost us the human connection.
We are the generation that produced Sophia the Robot, and gave her citizenship in Saudi Arabia. It only makes sense that we should be the generation that bridges the gap, that finds the balance between technology and humanity, and between corporate profit and communal benefit.
Are we more digi-dependent in management, than say, the generations directly before and after us? One could argue that many Baby Boomers are still getting to grips with the speed of digital technology. And one could argue that the Millenials were born into a connected world, so they are less stressed about the connect. But here we stand, in the grey areas between the ‘good old way’ of doing things, and the faster-faster pace of e-management. On the one hand, we find efficient teams of people working across the world; and mostly never meeting one another. And on the other hand, we find some of these gigantic multinationals investing heavily in connectivity programs, team building projects, and processes to promote work life balance. The main point here is that this can be done without sacrificing the bottom line.
Hats off to those business leaders who insist on ‘seeing’ the business through the eyes of those who actually run it. To food chain CEOs like Katja Berlee of Innscor whose value chain includes small farmers, and process partners across Kenya. It means a lot when she actually takes the time to meet sharecropper farmers (and I mean without the PR machine). To organizations like One Acre Fund whose staff make a difference by being on the farms physically, working with the those who tend the fields of rural East Africa. And hats off to Amiran Kenya, whose agric trainers provide on-site support and guidance throughout the planting to harvest process. The Amiran teacher-farmers make balanced use of photo-correspondence on shared platforms like whatsapp, and provide real-time help to farmers on a personal level.
At the Amiran Farmers Training Program in Nairobi last year, the Trainer Emma Wangai made us laugh by showing how farmers should lead. She called it MBWA: management by walking around. Mbwa is the Kiswahili word for ‘dog’ and Emma made the example perfect. Dogs patrol their territory, they look around and sniff out things that are unusual or out of place. Essentially, a business leader can’t fix what he or she can’t see.
In recent years, global business has grown as a result of digitalization, and long distances (or timezone difference) no longer pose a threat to daily business. Between 2008 and now, the competitive landscape has changed dramatically for most businesses, and financial strategists have had to refocus. Generally, investment portfolios have had to be reshuffled, and many of us have run in the direction of cost savings.
Our P&L can be balanced to include the more human aspects of day-to-day work. We can choose not to be detached from our professional family, we can decide to see beyond the performance of tasks, and make better efforts to understand the beauty of each individual who contributes to the achievement of our goals. This is every leader’s first choice, and should inform our performance in the coming year and beyond.
Funke Michaels is an MIT Sloan Fellow, a Harvard Mason Fellow, and co-founder of the MIT Africa Investment Forum. Nigerian-by-birth and Kenyan-by-marriage, she also heads marketing and strategic communications at Burhani Engineers, an innovation-focused organization working across 16 markets in East and Central Africa.