HR in 2037: Organisation Development for Robots


Over few months James Traeger and I have been busy, we have been writing a book on organisation development and we are nearing the completion of our first draft. Here is what James has to say about our project:

My colleague Rob Warwick and I have been commissioned to write a book about Organisation Development. We are delighted and daunted by the prospect. We want to write a kind of ‘truth about OD’ handbook: it’s all very well what it says in a text book but, what’s it like for real, when we get our hands dirty? And what might become of the world in general, and the world of work in particular, that might shake up our settled (and possibly self-satisfied) view of what we do?

This made us think quite broadly about not just the past, our stories of practice as they have been, but what might become of us. It invited us to imagine not just the last couple of decades of practice, but the next couple as well. What would the world of organisations be like in, say 2037?

To help us with this, we invited some fictional characters into the story. The first to arrive was Jas. He is in his seventies by then, and has had a long and more or less successful career in this world. Jas was followed by Winona, a younger woman, very much at the outset of her working life, who actually is, as it turned out, what they call an ‘MG’ – a mixed genotype. This means that Winona is part human and part android. One of the most striking things we discovered about Jas and Winona’s world is that androids and humans co-inhabit the workplace.

There is no ‘I’ in Robot

This may sound like a strange idea. It does shake up our view of people, work and organisations. That is the point. What does it do for our understanding of the future of OD, for example, when Jas finds himself confronted by a client, a global shipping organisation, that has finally decided to outsource all of its manual work to androids? Imagine hundreds of enormous merchant vessels sailing all over the world, with no people on them. It sounds like a dystopia, but one that may well be a reality quite soon. Indeed, the technology for this is available now.

This is an age-old challenge facing humanity, in fact, it’s one we had to grapple with ever since we started to make and use tools. In the words of phenomenologist Maurice Meleau Pointy, who investigates the nature of the self explained:

“When a blind person holds a white stick, where do they in fact exists, in relation to this object? How far does their ‘self’ extend into the world? Where does their familiar stick become part of them? Is it at the end of the stick, where it hits the pavement, or at the junction between their stick and their hand? Or halfway down?”

Spot the difference: Drones and video conferencing

Thinking of robots, androids and non-humans in the workplace is asking us to confront confused and confusing notions of what constitutes ‘us’, our ‘selves’. These notions are likely to become even more confusing as our interrelationship with technology shifts. This will no doubt affect our notions of self, work and organisations in profound ways. To illustrate further, here are a few thought experiments to consider.


When a drone pilot controls a drone that is flying thousands of miles away, where in fact are they? Do they exists, both in the windowless room in the middle of the desert in the United States, as well as somewhere in the sky over Afghanistan, connected as it were, by a thin filament of self that stretches between?

Video conferencing

When our colleague joins us in a business meeting, whilst she is in Rome, and we are in a room together in London, where in fact is she? With us in the room, at her kitchen table, or is she in fact constructed somewhere on a server in Ireland or California?

One hundred years ago, when automobiles were in their earliest stages of development, there wasn’t yet an agreed convention for the interface between the human and the vehicle. The Model T Ford had the three pedals we might recognise, but instead of an accelerator, brake and clutch, two of the pedals actually operated the gears. By the 1920s manufactures had more or less settled together on the interface that we know now to be familiar. Perhaps this is indicative of the likely evolution of virtual interfaces that we use, like Skype, Zoom, Webex etc? Perhaps the convention for interconnectivity is yet to be developed, and will one day be as familiar to us as the controls of a car.

Adapting is not a technicality

These thought experiments point out that the human/technological interface is an ever-evolving phenomenon, one that we have been adapting to for centuries, millennia even. As far back as the mythical time when Oedipus was invited to solve the riddle of the sphinx, which asked ‘what walks on four legs, then two legs then three?’ (You can try and solve it yourself, or of course you can google it).

Donna Harraway wrote the Cyborg Manifesto in the 1980s. In it she suggested that people– and women in particular– have been in fact liberated by this technological interface, but not always in altogether positive or predictable ways. An example is Rosie the Riveter, the cartoon poster of the 1940s which was created to encourage American women to join the war effort. In the picture, Rosie is depicted as a strong young woman, flexing her biceps, under the slogan ‘We can do it!’ We presume by her epithet that she is technologically enhanced by the rivet gun she wields to assemble vast bombers for the air force. Ironically, these bombers are then deployed against the cities full of women and children just like her. It is an unsettling image of the complex relationship that humans have, and will continue to develop with technology. The next turn of this relationship will no doubt be equally liberating and troubling.

Upset your thinking for greater perspective

What happens when we are surrounded by artificial intelligences, androids with whom we can converse, collaborate and even cohabit? What happens when bio-medical advances finally sever the inevitable distinction in procreation between women and men? These are other less imaginable challenges will be vested upon us, our communities and indeed our workplaces over the next quarter century, and will no doubt make the revolution we have just witnessed over the invention and development of the internet look like a mere bump in the road.

So the purpose of bringing Jas and Winona into our story of Organisation Development has liberated our thinking, hopefully in the same way that Rosie symbolised the unpredictable, unsettling liberation of American women. We wanted our thinking around the past, present and future of OD to be upset, in order that a greater perspective could be engendered.

Reflexivity as methodology: an approach to the necessarily political work of senior groups

This week Douglas and I had our paper on reflexivity as a research method published in Educational Action Research, here is the abstract and the weblink:

Research into senior groups and their political nature has serious gaps. We claim that participants in the process are best placed to be both researchers and, with others, the subject of research. Here we illustrate the shortcomings of current methodologies, such as action research, due to the spatial separation and detemporalisation between what is being researched and the construction of a research interpretation. We highlight a tendency to veer towards the intellectual post hoc interpretation of events at the expense of the visceral nature of immersed human experience. Reflexivity in this paper refers to the attention paid to engaging with one’s own experience and the noticing of one’s sometimes unsettling movement of thought over an extended period of time and by doing so how this in turn affects one’s own practice with others. We give examples of and argue for reflexive practice that understands and overcomes its own immersed nature.

Public Rhetoric, Private Sensemaking

Last week there were a couple of events that reminded me of a previous posting of mine on the National Health Service (NHS) in England, but also more broadly of organisational life.  As I have mentioned before, in England the Health and Social Care Bill is working its way through Parliament.  If successful it will bring about substantial change to health and social care.

Firstly there was the Nuffield Trust Conference where the Health Secretary and others gave polished performances of future problems if nothing was done and how the future would be better if the changes are introduced.  And that going back was not a viable option.  The language on the podium was confident with graphs, metrics along with a few narratives the audience could relate to.

The second event was a small far less formal gathering of MPs, peers and those with an expert contribution on health and/or leadership that I was invited to.    The short presentations, the questions and answer sessions and the conversations on the fringes took an understandably different tone.  Instead of future focused rhetoric of the benefits of the new world here the practicalities of today were explored.  In talking with the attendees at this session it is clear that the reforms are generating an enormous number of quality conversations.  GPs are now talking with hospital doctors, doctors are now talking with managers, and there are serious conversations as to how people will work together as they go forward.  In other words, there is a process of joint sense making as people come to think and understand what the future will bring and how they will respond.

These events reminded me of Gilbert Ryle’s observation on how we use language.  Ryle was an English philosopher of the mid twentieth century who was influenced by Wittgenstein, particularly with respect to language.  Ryle (1949) discussed the problem between what he refers to as “task verbs” and “achievement verbs” and how these often go unnoticed.  The former refers to activities, processes and actual experience and the latter only to the outcomes that the activity will have:

Many of the performance verbs with which we describe people …signify the occurrence not just of actions but of suitable or correct actions.  They signify achievements.  Verbs like … “catch”, “solve”, “find”, “win” …and countless others, signify not merely that some performance has been gone through, but also that something has been brought off by the agent of going through it.  They are verbs of success (p125).

Turning back to the above events, very few of the public discussions centred upon the unfolding activity and sense making people were making together as we inched forward with the reforms, or ‘task verbs’ as Ryle put it.  Those conversations legitimately occur behind the scenes.  However, to me these conversations form the energy and local direction to make change happen.  I am not saying those private conversations are more or less important than the public rhetoric.  What I am drawing attention to is the importance they both have together.   Descriptions of future success, or ‘achievement verbs’ in Ryle’s words, are vital; but in themselves they are insufficient to bring about change.  In other words the ‘gesture’ of the politicians and legislation, will have to be responded to by the myriad of local interactions and conversations – change can be encouraged, but ultimately it is complex and self-organising.

Reference:  Ryle, G (1949) The Concept of Mind, London: Penguin

The Lansley Engagement Scale – The New Metric of Organisational Change

In the midst of a storm it can be difficult to take stock and consider how we got there, what the future will bring, or even just to reflect casually on past experiences.  Instead the focus is on navigating the ship through the immediate problem or just staying afloat.  Whether or not you agree with the basic tenets of current NHS reforms it will be interesting to see how we will look back on the last couple of years.

Wikimedia Hurricane

Given the severity of this storm and the lack of visibility for those on the Bridge a new scale of healthcare organisational change might emerge: the Lansley Scale of Chaotic Engagement; named after Andrew Lansley, the Secretary of State for Health in England.  Like its nautical cousin, the Beaufort scale, it will have twelve points; our current storm and turmoil being ‘hurricane-force’.  At the other end there are the flat calm conditions of the bygone (and for many totally fictitious) age of the 1950s where matron ruled the roost and the likes of Sir Lancelot Spratt barked orders to junior doctors, nurses and patients alike, with never a manager in sight.  So where would other notable changes to the NHS feature of the scale; changes such as the establishment of the regional health authorities in the 1970s, the Griffith Report with its focus on managerialism, or the NHS Plan of 2000.  I would suspect all would feature at “Lansley Scale” six or below.

So what are the features that would make our current storm a “Force 12”?  A scan of the national press, talking with fellow NHS managers, and a quick trawl through the Health Service Journal discussions boards provides at least some of the evidence.

  • A general sense of bewilderment amongst commentators, patient groups, clinicians, managers.  The disengagement Royal College      of Midwives, Royal College of Nursing, the British Medical Association and others.
  • Searching through the conservative manifestos for a hint of what was to come.  It was David Aaronovich who wrote in The Times shortly after the election, when the nature of Lansley’s thinking started to emerge, that it was like watching television and hearing a squawk behind you only to find a penguin, and you think to yourself; “how on earth did that get there”!
  • The shifting sands of clinical freedom moving from the early rhetoric of “ensuring clinical  freedom” to the central control of the commissioning board which could be summarised as “freedom, but …”
  • How the rocks on which the NHS could founder have become obscured by the present storm.  For example, where is the wide scale public and political debate on: NHS budget pressures, increasing demands, the effect of long term conditions such as obesity and diabetes, an ageing population, greater citizen expectations and healthcare inflation?

So where does this leave us?  Last year’s Pause announced by the Health Secretary provided an opportunity for everyone to reflect on progress.  However I have not seen sufficient soul searching and transformative ideas needed to consider my last bullet point.   There needs to be a real opportunity for all those in the health and social care community (patients, public, private, voluntary and third sectors) to be able to think differently about health and wellbeing, and not just about structures.  If this were to happen perhaps we might look back at our Lansley Scale 12 storm as a tough, but creative time that helped to shift our way of thinking and that led to practical improvements.