Captain Dunsail to the Rescue! As Technology Advances We May Finally Be Forced to Deal with Our Biggest Business Challenge: Us

By Christopher Surdak

Christopher Surdak argues that in order for businesses to earn the highest returns on information technology, they must focus their investments on where technology is needed most: understanding humans.

Executive Summary

Big Data is being sold as the latest technology cure-all for whatever ails modern businesses. This is nothing new. In the episode “The Ultimate Computer” from the original television series Star Trek, scientists claim to create a computer that can operate the starship Enterprise faster and more efficiently than its human crew. Initially the computer does perform better than people, leading to the ship’s captain James T. Kirk to be referred to as “Captain Dunsail.” This is an old nautical term for something worthless, useless or superfluous (“The ship ‘dun sail’ without you!”). (1)

By the end of the episode the failings of the computer become clear, and the crew is returned to service despite their human ‘shortcomings’.

Gartner Group estimates that in 2016 the global market for Information Technology (IT) will exceed $3.5 trillion. (2) Clearly, business leaders believe that it is worth investing in IT. However, most business leaders also know that not all investments are created equally, and selecting investments that generate the greatest returns is their most basic fiduciary duty. In this article, author, futurist and technologist Christopher Surdak argues that in order for businesses to earn the highest returns on information technology, they must focus their investments on where technology is needed most: understanding humans.

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Romancing the Stone

In the 1984 movie, Romancing the Stone, Kathleen Turner plays a romance novel author who travels to Colombia on an unexpected adventure that challenged her ideas of what she, and the world, was all about. Last month I, a business author, traveled to Colombia on an adventure that challenged many of the beliefs that I had about the world, and shaped my thinking in entirely new ways.

I spent a week in Bogota and Medellin, delivering 14 presentations in support of my upcoming book Jerk: Twelve Steps to Rule the World. While there, I met with hundreds of business people from a range of different industries. I met with C-level executives of enormous, multi-billion-dollar conglomerates and I met with Generation-Z entrepreneurs looking to be the next Uber, Airbnb or Alibaba.

Most business leaders also know that not all investments are created equally, and selecting investments that generate the greatest returns is their most basic fiduciary duty.

After decades of dealing with internal strife, civil war, drug cartels and crime, Colombia is entering its Renaissance. Colombia in 2016 reminded me of Poland when I visited there a few years after their independence. There was an energy in the air. A sense of self-determination, optimism and opportunity that was contagious. Our team had an amazing time meeting with all of these business people, sharing and learning with them, and we departed Bogota with a much clearer picture of globalisation in the coming decade.

In discussing Jerk, or how and why the digital disruption we see all around us is occurring, the topic always returned to what we call Big Data. I have literally had this discussion hundreds of times over the last few years, and I am well-versed in the topic. However, despite all of my experience with companies in North America, Europe and Asia, I was completely surprised by these meetings in Colombia. These business people were keenly interested in Big Data, but their take on this revolution was so different, and so insightful, that I found it to be revolutionary. I left that country more energised and more concerned than I ever expected.


Big Data: Making a Better Mousetrap

In America, and in much of Europe, discussions about Big Data invariably revolve around technology. Executives in these countries almost always ask which technology they should use, which software package is best, what platform should they select, and how big should their Hadoop cluster be. The audience is typically Chief Information Officers (CIOs) and Chief Technology Officers (CTOs) trying to keep their jobs and stay relevant to their business, Chief Marketing Officers (CMOs) trying to be CTOs or CIOs, Chief Operating Officers (COOs) trying to figure out why there is now a Chief Data Officer (CDO) and Chief Financial Officers (CFOs) trying to figure out how the organisation will ever make money on any of this.

Regardless of the political dynamics in the room, these people focus on tools and technology because they have been saturated with these conversations their entire career. There is a belief, deeply rooted, that once the correct technology is selected and implemented all of the organisation’s challenges and concerns will disappear and profits will spill forth. The solution to every problem the business faces lies in deploying a sufficiently large Hadoop cluster, or writing perfect scripts in PIG or HIVE or selecting the correct hybrid cloud infrastructure. Once this is done the organisation will be miraculously more effective than before.

Having played this game for over twenty-five years, I’ve learned that this is rarely the case. I have been directly involved in the implementation of every major technical innovation in business over that time, and the story is nearly always the same. Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), Supply Chain Management (SCM), Customer Relationship Management (CRM), Electronic Bills of Materials (eBOM), Enterprise Content Management (ECM), Enterprise Collaboration and Communications (ECC), Knowledge Management (KM) and so on, were all hailed as revolutions in business performance.

Individual technologies were also raised on pedestals and proclaimed to be saviours. Before Hadoop there was, over time, LINUX, VMWare, Java, C++, Lotus Notes VisualBasic, COBOL and so on. Every one of these technologies and solutions was touted to be the next digital messiah. And each of them, while contributing to a general improvement in business operations, failed to create the level of radical performance improvement that each initially promised.


Don’t Believe the Hype

There is nothing new to business’ belief in the promise of new technologies. It is not strange to believe that technology will save us when we need help surviving and thriving in our world. This is a belief system that is deeply rooted in our humanity, because our humanity has been possible only through our use of technology.

Humans have been using technology to make our lives easier for hundreds of thousands of years. Our use of tools is perhaps our most defining characteristic as a species. Other species communicate, cooperate, strategise, love, hate, lie and even go to war. But, with a few notable exceptions such as chimpanzees, ravens and perhaps humpbacked whales, humans are the only species to use tools to aid in our survival. As a result, when we are faced with new challenges it is natural for us to do the same thing that has made us successful in the past, and that’s largely what we do. There are few places left in our society where bigger, faster or more powerful aren’t seen as the inevitable means of success.


A Whole Different World View

This tool-oriented thinking stood in deep contrast to my experience in Colombia. There, every conversation focused on the need for social change because of Big Data, rather than technical change. In Colombia every business person saw Digital Disruption as a political, social and human issue, rather than one of bits and bytes. Our meetings were with the executives from Operations and Human Resources, rather than Information Technology.

Each organisation demonstrated a strong belief that their competitiveness, effectiveness and success depend on their people rather than their tools.

This perspective was remarkably refreshing and, I believe, fundamentally correct. Each organisation demonstrated a strong belief that their competitiveness, effectiveness and success depend on their people rather than their tools. This lay in stark contrast to my experience of outsourcing, downsizing, offshoring and “strategic-reassignment-and-reallocation-of-real-estate-based-capital-assets,” (otherwise known as layoffs) that have been so fashionable with companies in so-called developed countries.

In Colombia, companies seemed to understand that people were the source of strategic differentiation, and that technologies were nothing but levers that multiply their peoples’ effectiveness, or their lack thereof. Colombian organisations seem to understand that if you put powerful technologies in the hands of poorly qualified people, you’re going to make yourself more effective at being awful. How many of us have experienced exactly this while waiting on hold on our mobile phone, waiting for an automated answering service to completely underwhelm us?


The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

For at least 200,000 years humans have been using tools and technology to control our world. But as technology innovation relentlessly accelerates one thing becomes more and more clear: No amount of technology advancement can address the fundamental weakness in human organisations, social groups, and politics. That weakness is us.

When business and technology executives in developed countries discuss responding to change they almost always focus on tools and technology. They have bought into the notion that Big Data is a technology issue rather than a people issue. After all, new tools and technologies appear to allow organisations to take shortcuts towards better results without having to address the more difficult issue of people.  

And this was largely true during the last sixty years, as companies automated the metabolism of their structured, operational data. Most organisations are now so effective at managing their structured data that there is little room for improvement from this source. Instead, effective organisations are starting to leverage their most valuable untapped resource: unstructured data.


Human Information, The Ghost in the Machine

This unstructured data, or Human Information (HI) exists in every organisation in the form of emails, text messages, video and audio files, social media posts and so on. This information is extremely rich in context, and yet most organisations do not keep this information, let alone analyse it. However, HI may be the most valuable source of insights into the opportunities and threats that your organisation faces and what you should do about them.

Historically, computers and software had a hard time understanding unstructured data, and context was difficult to capture before mobility and GPS. Hence, organisations were forced to use other metrics for measuring human performance. This is why we use a range of metrics out of the world of structured data in an attempt to measure the effectiveness of people. This leads to the trend of “Human Capital Management” and metrics such as:

Do you submit your status reports on time?

Are you punctual with staff meetings?

How quickly do you respond to emails?

Do you complete employee surveys on time?

If these sound familiar to you it is no accident. I have had employers track these exact same metrics for me, despite their being utterly meaningless. These measures are used because they were easy, they were quantifiable, and in the absence of anything actually useful, we believed them to be better than nothing.

 But are they?

When we are brutally honest with ourselves we know that these metrics are not only worthless, they are degrading, dehumanising, objectively meaningless and indicative of adherence to me-too thinking that is hardly representative of the best that humanity can achieve. As a result, these same metrics drive our best people out of our organisations with alarming regularity and speed, leaving behind compliant, if not very innovative, sheep. This is good if you’re in the wool or mutton business, but if you’re in any other industry Colombian innovators will run right past you.

As with healthcare in America, treating symptoms while ignoring the underlying disease is an easy, yet expensive and ultimately fatal approach to dealing with the problems we face. In business the symptoms of poor people management are easy to measure and apparently easy to manage, even if we never address their underlying cause. And by the early 21st-century we have advanced our business use of Information Technology so far, so fast, that the shortcomings of ourselves and our social interactions are being exposed like rocks on the sea shore, revealed during ebb tide.

The effectiveness of further automating what has already been automated, or outsourcing what has already been rationalised, optimised and Kaizen’ed for decades will feel more and more like trying to draw blood from a stone. This is because, increasingly, it is.


“Likes” are the Answer?

This leads to the obvious question: What are we to do about these issues? Can technology help deal with the issues that our reliance on technology has exposed? Can technology deal with the issues of our humanness in a direct way, rather than dismissing them with supposed facts and masking them with well-engineered user interfaces or idiotic metrics that treat people like laser printers?

And importantly, if the answer to these questions is “yes” what might those solutions look like?

Indeed, we have managed to advance all other aspects of enterprise computing so far over these past few decades that now human engineering and social engineering are all that remain to achieve further advancement in our organisations.

This is not a new question. In fact, we have been asking this since the beginning of the computer era. There have been all manner of new technologies, innovations and techniques that have been developed to replicate human thinking, human emotions and human interaction for half a century. And while these attempts tended to get closer and closer to replicating how we think and interact, they have nonetheless been most notable for their failure to do so.

Until now.

It turns out that until recently we simply did not have sufficient computing power, nor sufficient data, nor sufficiently sophisticated mathematics to replicate human behaviour. 20 years later we have effectively conquered all three of these constraints. Indeed, we have managed to advance all other aspects of enterprise computing so far over these past few decades that now human engineering and social engineering are all that remain to achieve further advancement in our organisations.

Thanks to advancing computing power and the mixed blessing that is Social Media, humanity may finally have the ability to model, understand and begin to optimise human behaviour and social interaction. And if we can, success will dictate that we must.

I predict that 10 years from now we will realise that the true revolution caused by Social Media will not be the billions of hours spent discussing pictures of kittens, nor the increase in divorces caused by platforms like Facebook. Rather, it will be the formation of an absolutely enormous repository of unstructured human data that we will capture, analyse, and act on to create dramatically better outcomes from the final variable in our productivity equation: humans.

I believe that we will find that apparently benign platforms like We Chat or Twitter will give us the ability to start understanding the human mind and our rational and irrational thoughts. This data will reveal our motivations and thinking patterns. They will show our prejudices, loves and hates, and will allow us to manipulate and optimise these as we have every other lever in our economy. This is the true revolution that will be brought by Social Media, and those who embrace this transition first will be the winners in the new Digital economy.


Boldly Going Where None has Gone Before

The almost 1.5 billion users of Facebook likely have no notion of their contribution to this mother lode of human understanding. Rather, they just enjoy spying on their old school sweethearts and ‘liking’ their friends’ latest selfies. But advancement in our ability to mathematically analyse and understand unstructured and contextual data will allow us to start tapping into and understand the human soul, which may be the final frontier for the world of information technology.

This leads me to an old space engineering axiom that we used when I worked in that industry: If something seems irrational or crazy you probably have the wrong data, the wrong math, or both. Maybe in the next decade, given the right data and the right math, we can finally solve the problems caused by our humanness. We can finally address the one thing that has never changed in our society: Us.

Perhaps in the near future, those who we call ‘Data Scientist’ will be a bit less like the ever-rational Spock, and a bit more like the Mercurial Doctor McCoy. Put together, this may lead to the best compromise of all: the intelligently-emotive, rational risk-taker we find in Captain James Tiberius Kirk.

Organisations that understand and embrace this new ability to quantify our humanity will develop a level of nuanced understanding of their employees, customers, and society at-large that will make them dramatically more competitive than those who do not. I am convinced that this is not a question of “if,” it is merely a question of “when” and “who”.

The future will belong to those who are willing to boldly go where we haven’t been before, and who do so with an open mind for what is possible, rather than what is merely profitable.

This was the deep, fundamental understanding that I witnessed throughout my travels in Colombia. Every executive seemed to recognise this monumental shift in where Big Data is heading, and they were trying to embrace it while they still had time. I found their attitude remarkably refreshing, even comforting, as it resonated with much of the thinking that I recently captured in Jerk. This understanding was the basis of a bond between them and my team, and I am looking forward to spending more time with others who share with me this little inside secret.

The future will not belong to those with the biggest Hadoop cluster or the most elegant models developed in ‘R’. Instead it will belong to those who are willing to boldly go where we haven’t been before, and who do so with an open mind for what is possible, rather than what is merely profitable.

My new friends in Colombia are embracing a social revolution, powered by technology. And their response both as organisations and as humans will determine their success in the global marketplace. I for one am betting that they get it right; I’m sure that they’ll give their captain, “All she’s got”.


Featured image from Star Trek “The Ultimate Computer”

About the Author

chris surdak bio pic 2Christopher Surdak is an Engineer, Juris Doctor, Strategist, Tech Evangelist, 2015 Benjamin Franklin Innovator of the Year, and Honored Consultant to the FutureTrek Community, Beijing, China. He has recently launched his own consultancy firm Surdak & Company. He is also the author of Data Crush: How the Information Tidal Wave is Driving New Business Opportunities, which is GetAbstract’s International Book of the Year for 2014.





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