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The future of work is uniquely human

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The future of work is uniquely human


The disruptive shifts of 2020, including covid-19 shutdowns that led to millions of workers working remotely, forced organizations to radically rethink everything from worker well-being, business models and operations to investments in cloud-based collaboration and communication tools.

Across every industry, last year’s best-laid plans were turned upside down. So it’s not surprising that technology and work have become, more than ever, inextricably intertwined. As business moves toward an uncertain future, companies have accelerated their efforts to use automation and other emerging technologies to boost efficiency, support worker well-being, accelerate work outputs, and achieve new outcomes.

Yet, technology investments are not enough to brace for future disruptions. In fact, an organization’s readiness depends crucially on how it prepares its work and its workforce. This is a uniquely human moment that requires a human touch.

To thrive in a world of constant change, companies must re-architect work and support their workers in ways that enable them to rise to future challenges. According to Deloitte’s 2021 Global Human Capital Trends survey of 6,000 global respondents, including 3,630 senior executives, 45% said that building an organizational culture that celebrates growth, adaptability, and resilience is critical to transforming work. To reach that goal, embracing a trio of essential human attributes—purpose, potential, and perspective—can humanize work and create lasting value for the workforce, and throughout the organization and society at large.

Purpose: Grounding organizations in values

Purposeestablishes a foundational set of organizational values that do not depend on circumstance and serve as a benchmark against which actions and decisions can be weighed. It relies on the uniquely human ability to identify where economic value and social values intersect. Organizations that are steadfast in their purpose are able to infuse meaning into work in order to mobilize workers around common, meaningful goals.

For example, Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta Air Lines, credits Delta Air Lines’ sense of purpose for helping the organization through the covid-19 crisis. “When I took over as CEO, we studied what our mission was and what our purpose was, which has helped us post-pandemic because we were clear pre-pandemic,” he says. “Our people can do their very best when they have leadership support and feel connected to the organization’s purpose.”

Potential: A dynamic look at people’s capabilities

To thrive amid constant disruption, organizations need to capitalize on the potential of their workers and their teams by looking more dynamically at their people’s capabilities. Most leaders agree: 72% of the executives in the Deloitte survey said that “the ability of their people to adapt, reskill, and assume new roles” was either the most important or second most important factor in their organization’s ability to navigate future disruptions and boost speed and agility.

AstraZeneca, for example, is an organization that quickly mobilized its resources and took advantage of worker potential to meet a pressing need—developing a covid-19 vaccine. Tonya Villafana, AstraZeneca’s vice president and global franchise head of infection, credits the company’s accelerated response for its ability to tap into a varied pool of experts, both across the company and through its collaboration with the University of Oxford. In addition, AstraZeneca not only brought in top experts but also added “high performers who were really passionate and wanted to get involved” with the vaccine development team.

Perspective: Operating boldly in the face of uncertainty

In the face of uncertainty, it’s easy to be paralyzed by multiple options and choices. Perspective—quite literally, the way organizations see things—is a challenge to operate boldly in the face of the unknown, using disruption as a launching pad to imagine new opportunities and possibilities. For instance, taking the perspective that uncertainty is a valuable opportunity frees organizations to take new, fearless steps forward, even if it means veering from the usual, comfortable path. For most executives in the survey, that includes a deliberate effort to completely reimagine how, by who, and where works gets done and what outcomes can be achieved. 61% of respondents said their work transformation objectives would focus on reimagining work, compared to only 29% pre-pandemic.

ServiceNow is one organization that shifted direction in this way during covid-19. In March 2020, the company held a “blue sky” strategy session as a forum for leaders to discuss the future of work, digital transformation, and the company. But as they considered these issues under the cloud of the emerging pandemic, CEO Bill McDermott realized the organization needed to take a different tack. “If we can’t help the world manage the pandemic, there won’t be a blue sky,” he said. As a result, he pivoted the meeting to focus on how ServiceNow could quickly innovate and bring new products to market that would help organizations maintain business operations during the pandemic. ServiceNow quickly built and deployed four emergency response management applications as well as a suite of safe workplace applications to make returning to the workplace work for everyone.

Putting people at the heart of work decisions pays off

Re-architecting work is not about simply automating tasks and activities. At its core, it is about configuring work to capitalize on what humans can accomplish when work is based on their strengths.

In the survey, executives identified two factors related to human potential as the most transformative for the workplace: building an organizational culture that celebrates growth, adaptability and resilience (45%), and building workforce capability through upskilling, reskilling, and mobility (41%).

Leaders should find ways to create a shared sense of purpose that mobilizes people to pull strongly in the same direction as they face the organization’s current and future challenges, whether the mission is, like Delta’s, to keep people connected, or centered on goals such as inclusivity, diversity or transparency. They should trust people to work in ways that allow them to fulfill their potential, offering workers a degree of choice over the work they do to align their passions with organizational needs. And they should embrace the perspective that reimagining work is key to the ability to achieve new and better outcomes—in a world that is itself being constantly reimagined.

If the past year has shown us anything, it’s that putting people at the heart of a company’s decisions about work and the workforce pays off by helping companies better stay ahead of disruption. The result is an organization that doesn’t just survive but thrives in an unpredictable environment with an unknown future.

This content was produced by Insights, the custom content arm of MIT Technology Review. It was not written by MIT Technology Review’s editorial staff.

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The hunter-gatherer groups at the heart of a microbiome gold rush

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The hunter-gatherer groups at the heart of a microbiome gold rush


The first step to finding out is to catalogue what microbes we might have lost. To get as close to ancient microbiomes as possible, microbiologists have begun studying multiple Indigenous groups. Two have received the most attention: the Yanomami of the Amazon rainforest and the Hadza, in northern Tanzania. 

Researchers have made some startling discoveries already. A study by Sonnenburg and his colleagues, published in July, found that the gut microbiomes of the Hadza appear to include bugs that aren’t seen elsewhere—around 20% of the microbe genomes identified had not been recorded in a global catalogue of over 200,000 such genomes. The researchers found 8.4 million protein families in the guts of the 167 Hadza people they studied. Over half of them had not previously been identified in the human gut.

Plenty of other studies published in the last decade or so have helped build a picture of how the diets and lifestyles of hunter-gatherer societies influence the microbiome, and scientists have speculated on what this means for those living in more industrialized societies. But these revelations have come at a price.

A changing way of life

The Hadza people hunt wild animals and forage for fruit and honey. “We still live the ancient way of life, with arrows and old knives,” says Mangola, who works with the Olanakwe Community Fund to support education and economic projects for the Hadza. Hunters seek out food in the bush, which might include baboons, vervet monkeys, guinea fowl, kudu, porcupines, or dik-dik. Gatherers collect fruits, vegetables, and honey.

Mangola, who has met with multiple scientists over the years and participated in many research projects, has witnessed firsthand the impact of such research on his community. Much of it has been positive. But not all researchers act thoughtfully and ethically, he says, and some have exploited or harmed the community.

One enduring problem, says Mangola, is that scientists have tended to come and study the Hadza without properly explaining their research or their results. They arrive from Europe or the US, accompanied by guides, and collect feces, blood, hair, and other biological samples. Often, the people giving up these samples don’t know what they will be used for, says Mangola. Scientists get their results and publish them without returning to share them. “You tell the world [what you’ve discovered]—why can’t you come back to Tanzania to tell the Hadza?” asks Mangola. “It would bring meaning and excitement to the community,” he says.

Some scientists have talked about the Hadza as if they were living fossils, says Alyssa Crittenden, a nutritional anthropologist and biologist at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, who has been studying and working with the Hadza for the last two decades.

The Hadza have been described as being “locked in time,” she adds, but characterizations like that don’t reflect reality. She has made many trips to Tanzania and seen for herself how life has changed. Tourists flock to the region. Roads have been built. Charities have helped the Hadza secure land rights. Mangola went abroad for his education: he has a law degree and a master’s from the Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy program at the University of Arizona.

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The Download: a microbiome gold rush, and Eric Schmidt’s election misinformation plan

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The Download: a microbiome gold rush, and Eric Schmidt’s election misinformation plan


Over the last couple of decades, scientists have come to realize just how important the microbes that crawl all over us are to our health. But some believe our microbiomes are in crisis—casualties of an increasingly sanitized way of life. Disturbances in the collections of microbes we host have been associated with a whole host of diseases, ranging from arthritis to Alzheimer’s.

Some might not be completely gone, though. Scientists believe many might still be hiding inside the intestines of people who don’t live in the polluted, processed environment that most of the rest of us share. They’ve been studying the feces of people like the Yanomami, an Indigenous group in the Amazon, who appear to still have some of the microbes that other people have lost. 

But there is a major catch: we don’t know whether those in hunter-gatherer societies really do have “healthier” microbiomes—and if they do, whether the benefits could be shared with others. At the same time, members of the communities being studied are concerned about the risk of what’s called biopiracy—taking natural resources from poorer countries for the benefit of wealthier ones. Read the full story.

—Jessica Hamzelou

Eric Schmidt has a 6-point plan for fighting election misinformation

—by Eric Schmidt, formerly the CEO of Google, and current cofounder of philanthropic initiative Schmidt Futures

The coming year will be one of seismic political shifts. Over 4 billion people will head to the polls in countries including the United States, Taiwan, India, and Indonesia, making 2024 the biggest election year in history.

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Navigating a shifting customer-engagement landscape with generative AI

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Navigating a shifting customer-engagement landscape with generative AI


A strategic imperative

Generative AI’s ability to harness customer data in a highly sophisticated manner means enterprises are accelerating plans to invest in and leverage the technology’s capabilities. In a study titled “The Future of Enterprise Data & AI,” Corinium Intelligence and WNS Triange surveyed 100 global C-suite leaders and decision-makers specializing in AI, analytics, and data. Seventy-six percent of the respondents said that their organizations are already using or planning to use generative AI.

According to McKinsey, while generative AI will affect most business functions, “four of them will likely account for 75% of the total annual value it can deliver.” Among these are marketing and sales and customer operations. Yet, despite the technology’s benefits, many leaders are unsure about the right approach to take and mindful of the risks associated with large investments.

Mapping out a generative AI pathway

One of the first challenges organizations need to overcome is senior leadership alignment. “You need the necessary strategy; you need the ability to have the necessary buy-in of people,” says Ayer. “You need to make sure that you’ve got the right use case and business case for each one of them.” In other words, a clearly defined roadmap and precise business objectives are as crucial as understanding whether a process is amenable to the use of generative AI.

The implementation of a generative AI strategy can take time. According to Ayer, business leaders should maintain a realistic perspective on the duration required for formulating a strategy, conduct necessary training across various teams and functions, and identify the areas of value addition. And for any generative AI deployment to work seamlessly, the right data ecosystems must be in place.

Ayer cites WNS Triange’s collaboration with an insurer to create a claims process by leveraging generative AI. Thanks to the new technology, the insurer can immediately assess the severity of a vehicle’s damage from an accident and make a claims recommendation based on the unstructured data provided by the client. “Because this can be immediately assessed by a surveyor and they can reach a recommendation quickly, this instantly improves the insurer’s ability to satisfy their policyholders and reduce the claims processing time,” Ayer explains.

All that, however, would not be possible without data on past claims history, repair costs, transaction data, and other necessary data sets to extract clear value from generative AI analysis. “Be very clear about data sufficiency. Don’t jump into a program where eventually you realize you don’t have the necessary data,” Ayer says.

The benefits of third-party experience

Enterprises are increasingly aware that they must embrace generative AI, but knowing where to begin is another thing. “You start off wanting to make sure you don’t repeat mistakes other people have made,” says Ayer. An external provider can help organizations avoid those mistakes and leverage best practices and frameworks for testing and defining explainability and benchmarks for return on investment (ROI).

Using pre-built solutions by external partners can expedite time to market and increase a generative AI program’s value. These solutions can harness pre-built industry-specific generative AI platforms to accelerate deployment. “Generative AI programs can be extremely complicated,” Ayer points out. “There are a lot of infrastructure requirements, touch points with customers, and internal regulations. Organizations will also have to consider using pre-built solutions to accelerate speed to value. Third-party service providers bring the expertise of having an integrated approach to all these elements.”

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