Redefining the human role in fostering innovation

Published: July 2, 2018


When you consider how the world of work is changing, it is useful to think of the types of work falling into three main categories: RPA, AI and "US".

Robotic Process Automation (RPA) automates structured and routine tasks without the need for traditional systems integration or manual intervention. It focuses on increasing productivity and efficiency.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) tackles the more challenging tasks that can only be resolved by accessing dispersed data and by autonomously evolving how questions are understood and tackled. AI helps to answer more difficult questions at scale, but it's still fundamentally rules driven. Most companies have evaluated RPA and AI, but working out where "US" (that is, us humans) fit into this new equation, is less well defined. This leads us to two important questions:

  • What roles will humans ("US") play in the new world of work?
  • How will companies source talent, based on the new role we play, in light of evolving technology?

The Fourth Industrial revolution views "US" as biological components, defined in terms of our relationship with technology. We will be "augmented, integrated and, ultimately, improved". In many areas of the current working world, we will also be displaced.

As technology continues to evolve, it will shift the division of labor, absorbing tasks once performed by humans. This has happened throughout time, but what is changing is the speed at which this is happening, and the fact that it's now higher value, complex tasks that are being automated. This specifically devalues routine and rules driven tasks, often referred to as "left brain skills".These skills have underpinned white-collar professions for generations, but as AI and RPA mature, analysis, sequential processing and logical processing will cease to be ways that we humans create value within organizations.

Technology accesses exhaustive datasets and provides instant auditability (giving both Trust & Truth), eroding many professions our parents thought would guarantee job security. Rather than augmenting the accounting and legal professions, AI and RPA are displacing the routine work that made up the much of professional services firms billable hours.

Teaching, medicine and divinity will not escape the automation, as the Sacrament of Penance app (approved by the Catholic Church) has shown.

Our niche as humans is quickly being redefined to be areas where tech currently struggles. We can think of these as right brain capabilities, including empathy, synthesis, creativity and understanding complex context. Despite advances in areas such as Engineered Empathy there is still a marked difference between technology's ability to execute the linear and logical left-brain tasks and the more subjective, right brained activities. Whereas, AI and RPA drive optimization (doing the traditional better), its right brain capabilities that drive innovation, that panacea for companies facing hyper-commoditization.

From the outset, we need to dispel the idea that organizations will suddenly refocus their innovation teams, lurching from a left to a right centric model, leaving quantitative colleagues twiddling their thumbs. The current demand for data scientists shows how specialists, the top slice of the left brained labor pool, will always be in strong demand. Technologists will continue to have a mandatory role in innovation programs: horizon scanning for emerging tech and validating the feasibility of new ideas. What we will see though, is a shift in focus and approach when it comes to ramping up right brain capabilities as firms recognize the new unique selling proposition (USP) of "US."

In the 1980s and 1990s companies organized recruitment job fairs to harvest the best students from business schools. This industrial cycle filled middle management with graduates who could measure and manage. Laudable left-brain work.

With the shift in focus for the recruiting of right brained talent, businesses are increasingly looking toward design schools and liberal arts graduates, and less so at those from business schools. Graduates of these programs are accustomed to looking at ambiguity and identifying opportunities to innovate. Here we find people who are empathetic and adept at critical thinking. However, the answer to creating teams with right brain thinkers isn't just a matter of changing the focus of where candidates are recruited. We already know there will be an issue of supply, and the cause of that issue is our school system.

If we think of schools as the source of talent, then our approach to education not only reinforces a left brain centric viewpoint, it actively suppresses right brain abilities. Sir Ken Robinson's talk, Changing Educational Paradigms, illustrates how the traditional educational model encourages concrete, deductive reasoning: "there's one answer to a question (and the answer is written at the back of the book)". For Robinson, the way we approach education promotes standardization and conformity and actively subdues the right brain tendencies, such as divergent thinking, that spark innovation. Ultimately, this means that there are fewer people with right brain abilities for us to employ once they enter the working world. It also means fewer divergent thinkers who can challenge the status quo by asking the "what if" questions which lead to innovation.

John Maeda, formerly with the Rhode Island School of Design, MIT and a VC, builds on a similar theme. He actively promotes STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) over STEM. Maeda stresses the importance of blending Science, Tech, Engineering and Maths, the STEM subject aggressively promoted by governments around the world, with Art and Design. For over ten years Maeda has pointed out that an exclusive focus on STEM subjects creates a left-brain heavy workforce, which will never fully realize the innovation potential of students, colleagues, companies, or nations. Given the shift in the "US" niche, betting the farm on STEM seems a brave bet.

While you may feel yourself being persuaded by the arguments of Maeda and Robinson, perhaps you are still needing some quantitative evidence that shows the downstream value of right brain skills. Christian Madsbjerg is the founder of ReD Associates, a strategy consulting company based on the human sciences and employs anthropologists, sociologists, art historians, and philosophers. He has stated that to make a good income, you should study STEM, as even entry level jobs pay well. But when you look at the top 5% of US earners, there are three times more super-high earners with liberal arts background than with pure STEM backgrounds. This shows that those who have succeeded at the highest levels of organizations have cultivated right brain faculties.(HBR also provides a good list of right brained, celebrity CEOs, however the list does not present a statistically viable sample size).

If we've identified that in the Future World of Work the USP for "US" is the ability to contribute right brain capabilities that compliment AI and RPA, then employers face a significant challenge. We not only have to convince our boards of the value of right brainers, but we also have to convince a diminishing pool of right brainers that they could and should be one of US.

As with any conversation to fundamental shift thinking, persuading both sets of stakeholders will be challenging. To improve your chances of success, try finding a strong executive sponsor first who can focus on re-aligning the corporate mindset. This will help the organization foster a culture in which right brainers can thrive.

When looking for a sponsor, be realistic. You'll probably not find a Steve Jobs, (who famously snuck into Typography courses, whilst studying for his tech degree), but you will find a good number of executives who tell their kids "It's important to [study] liberal arts ... but realize, you're going to be working at Chick-fil-A." And, when you're facing those initial raised eyebrows and incredulous looks, just remember, there's no zealot like a convert.


Although the right and left brain model is often challenged as too reductive, the model is helpful in this context. A good exploration of creativity

and neurology can be found at

Dan Pink, A Whole New Mind (2005) extols the shift in economic value from Left to Right brain capacities.

Cf. Daniel & Richard Susskind The Future of the Professions. (2015)., see also Sensemaking: What makes human intelligence essential in the age of the algorithm. (2017)


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