We live in an automated age. From the news we read and the items we shop for, to who we date and what companies we choose to work for, algorithms help drive every facet of modern life. Such rapid technological advancement has led some to predict that we’re headed for a jobless future, where there is no more need for humans.
Yet in their new book Radically Human, Accenture’s Paul Daugherty and H. James Wilson argue exactly the opposite. In their work guiding technology strategy for many of the world’s top corporations, they have found that, in many cases, the robots need us more than we need them. Automation is no panacea.
For over a century, pundits have been trying to apply an engineering mindset to human affairs with the hope of taking a more “scientific approach.” So far, those efforts have failed. In reality, these ideas have less to do with science than denying the value of human agency and limiting the impact of human judgment. We need to stop making the same mistake.
The Myth Shareholder Value
In 1970, the economist Milton Friedman proposed a radical idea. He argued that corporate CEOs should not take into account the interests of the communities they serve, but that their only social responsibility was to increase shareholder value. While ridiculed by many at the time, by the 1980s Friedman’s idea became accepted doctrine.
In particular, what irked Friedman was that managers would exercise judgment with respect to the objectives of the organization. “the key point is that, in his capacity as a corporate executive, the manager is the agent of the individuals who own the corporation … and his primary responsibility is to them,” he wrote.
The problem is that boiling down the success of an enterprise to the single variable of shareholder value avoids important questions. What do we mean by “value?” Is short term value more important than long-term value? Do owners value only share price or do they also value other things, like technological progress and a healthy environment?
Avoiding tough questions leaves significant problems unsolved, which may be one reason that, since Friedman’s essay, our well-being has declined significantly…