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“We must be careful our humanity is not swamped by the digital revolution.”

Those were a few of the parting words shared by the social philosopher Charles Handy as he wrapped up this year’s Global Peter Drucker Forum in Vienna. That sentiment stirred the crowd to its feet and neatly summarized the event’s theme of inclusive prosperity, as well as the need for the world’s leaders to not lose sight of humanity for the sake of profits or growth.

I had the pleasure of chairing a Drucker panel that explored this theme, specifically the role that technology plays as either a catalyst or a threat to human prosperity. The session included:

  • Rahaf Harfoush, an author and a digital anthropologist
  • Erica Dhawan, an author and the CEO at Cotential
  • Don Tapscott, the CEO at The Tapscott Group and Adjunct Professor at the Rotman School of Management
  • Julia Kirby, author and editor at the Harvard University Press

The goal of the discussion was to acknowledge the responsibility that leaders have to understand and address the human impact of new technologies.

It’s a topic that is frequently misunderstood. Buzzwords like digitalization, automation, and globalization confuse the issue and obscure the reality of the situation: there’s a risk that real people will lose their jobs.

The issue strikes at society’s notion of the dignity of work. Many people define themselves by their job, and losing it to a new technology also means losing their identity. There’s no clarity on just how many positions could be lost, and it’s even less clear what we should ask leaders to do about the problem.

The panel covered the issue from several angles:

  • Rahaf Harfoush suggested that we need to rethink how we measure and value worker contributions in the digital age. As a society, we choose to abide by standards for success that were introduced during the Industrial Revolution, but today’s knowledge workers can’t be measured as if they’re on an assembly line.
  • As for establishing new standards, Don Tapscott suggested the creation of a new social contract for the digital economy. It would clarify the new modes of working, the distribution of wealth, and expectations for institutions, governments and business leaders.
  • Julia Kirby echoed the need for new guidelines. She also drew comparisons to the Industrial Revolution, arguing that the benefits of that period of innovation only reached the middle class once social policymaking and regulations provided guardrails.
  • Erica Dhawan discussed how roles can be augmented, rather than replaced, by technology. For example, algorithms may be able to mine information, but good leaders know when to rely on human perspective to make important decisions. Re-training and skills development can support role augmentation and reduce another big risk: the deterioration of company culture and workforce morale after layoffs.

My biggest takeaway from the session – and the event at large – was the need to develop empathic leaders. Empathy is often a missing quality in business, and in the excitement and confusion of digital disruption, it’s easy to get carried away and forget that people are at the core of any business. While technology innovations can change the world, great leaders understand how to shape technology’s impact in a way that benefits humanity

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