Why does technology exist? Not just mobiles and tablets and bleeding-edge digital applications, but any sort of technology — the internal combustion engine, a pair of scissors, a sharpened rock. It’s all tech.
It’s simple, really. To help us do things and, perhaps more specifically, do them better and faster than we have done in the past. The sharpened rock is better for separating things than bare hands, the scissor beats the blunt instrument, the engine goes faster than a person ever could.
Yet technology by itself is neutral. None of those examples work without a human to operate it. It’s people that deploy them for good or bad, for personal profit or sharing, to help or to hinder.
Sometimes, we don’t know what we’ve done until we’ve created it. History is littered with examples of people taking two existing concepts, mashing them together and seeing what’s happened.
This creativity comes at the intersection of technology and people. Look at any innovation, and it’s been a case of someone taking an existing piece of technology and applying it in a different way. Combine the handheld radio and the landline telephone to create mobile phones. GPS, mobile phones and cars equals Uber. Henry Ford didn’t invent cars, but he took a production process and made it industry-changing.
In each of these instances, the organisations involved were able to combine people and process with technology to turn an idea into a reality. These are the three pillars that “Innovating in the exponential economy”, a report from Cass Business School and VMware, highlights as necessary to make the leap from idea creation to execution. Let’s be honest: it is not technology that is holding back more flexible or home-working practices; it is people.
But what is it that allows people to take something that already exists and apply it in new ways?
It’s true that technology is evolving rapidly, and therefore the skills required to master it are going to change in tandem. Yet to think it’s simply a case of learning how to twiddle new knobs and press different buttons is wrong.
That granular approach is not going to be needed soon. Why? Because it represents the sort of minutiae-focused operation that will soon be the preserve of artificial intelligence. The writing is on the wall for employees that only have a deep-seated knowledge of how one particular product or suite of tools works and how best to optimise it.
What’s going to be valuable, what’s going to be the difference between a business forging ahead and standing still, is the skill to be able to take the technical knowledge and apply it on a broader scale. It’s about understanding how you bridge the gaps that exist between different departments in your organisation.
Perhaps ironically, the skills required more than ever to create something new is a talent that has been valued for generations — the ability to empathise with people in different circumstances to your own. Empathy is an often-overlooked skill but is fundamental in business. In fact, I would say we need our technologists not only to be empaths but philosophers and psychologists.
These skills might be for developers collaborating with operations; it might be IT with a commercial function or a line of business. It’s taking those classics of the job description — “must be a team player, work well with others” — and applying them not just within the confines of a team or department, but across an entire organisation.
So, it’s technical people being able to talk to, and empathise with, sales or marketing, and vice versa. It is about being able to understand human behaviour.
Again, technology can help here. Cloud computing, when deployed correctly, can provide a foundation that delivers consistent operations, bringing together previously siloed practices to work together. This frees teams from spending time twiddling their knobs and pushing their buttons — they are now able to build those softer skills and deploy them effectively. It goes back to the three pillars of closing the innovation execution gap — the underlying technology enables the right people and processes to focus on what they need to do.
Closing the gap, both skills and execution, is vital to progress. Technology is an enabler of innovation, but it is people that add the value in that intersection between tech and humans.
The key skills of the future will not be mastering a new platform or tool; it will be the age-old ability to connect, communicate and above all understand what colleagues and customers want and how you might be able to help them.
- Joe Baguley is vice president and chief technology officer in Europe, the Middle East and Africa and VMware