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In the Time We Have

Technology is increasing the premium on human interaction. What should we do in the time we have?

Technology is increasing the premium on human interaction. Students have entrusted universities and business schools with significant amounts of time with other humans. But that time is shrinking as the trust is wearing thin. What should we do in the time we have?

The central importance of this question became clear to me at the 7th Annual Global Peter Drucker Forum in Vienna, where 500 executives gathered to discuss “reclaiming humanity—managing in a digital age.” I went there to explore the changing expectations of management in society and will address only a tiny slice of the big ideas in this modest post, but I suggest searching #GPDF15 on Twitter to review the steady stream of ideas and visiting for the blog posts and videos.

The tradeoff between technological advances and human interaction became apparent early in the forum. Henry Mintzberg believes that new technologies are moving managerial work “from hectic to frenetic,” and several speakers offered that the new work of managers is to slow things down and provide the structures, time, and stability for employees to interact, reflect, and invent. Sherry Turkle wants managers to take a lead role in reclaiming uninterrupted face-to-face conversations. Ruimin Zhang spoke about the great lengths his company, Haier, goes to in order to connect people and break silos, while Jim Keane  of Steelcase talked about the importance of engaging people to create more meaningful work. All of this caused Financial Times columnist Andrew Hill to wonder openly whether “human interaction will become a luxury, affordable only to the privileged?"

The most immediate implication for business schools is the shifting balance between what we bring groups of people together to learn and that which can be learned through other channels. To be sure, there is no less for managers to know and be capable of doing; managing well has never been more challenging. But opportunities to learn are everywhere now. Content is accessible online, along with myriad templates, calculators, examples, and tools. As one participant said to me in the hallway, “big data is to millennials what the calculator was to us baby boomers,” implying we need not spend time practicing the modern equivalent of arithmetic and memorization.

We will continue to see more hybrid programs, combining asynchronous learning with face-to-face meetings, and “flipping the classroom” to reserve valuable “human interaction” time to develop applications and skills, such as teamwork, communication, and critical thinking, rather than transmit content, facts, and theories. Some schools are going further by “inverting admissions” to require students to demonstrate desired competencies before beginning the residential components that build on those competencies. Some programs are preparing learners for residential modules by creating more opportunities for social and gamified learning online, and leveraging technology to explore new issues and ideas rather than to teach existing ones.

As Peter Drucker said in 1967, "We are becoming aware that the major questions regarding technology are not technical but human questions."

What else should we do with the time we have? When asked what will differentiate humans as machines become more and more capable of knowledge work, Drucker Forum speakers used words such as values, attitudes, culture, collaboration, emotion, empathy, curiosity, and determination. More and more, business schools are called upon to use limited time together to augment these distinctly human (for the moment) strengths. Similarly, the conversations revealed a growing need to prepare managers more effectively to deal with larger issues brought about by the changing technological environment. We need managers who understand and can address issues such as inequality, shifting trust, and social responsibility, for which there are no easy answers. As Peter Drucker said in 1967, “We are becoming aware that the major questions regarding technology are not technical but human questions.”

Two additional points are worth noting. Speaker John Hagel suggested that “the half-life of a skill is now only five years.” Whether you believe this or not, the pace of change is undoubtedly accelerating. Nothing about the sweeping changes happening in society were surprising to Peter Drucker, according to his long-time collaborator Joseph Maciariello. But Drucker admitted the changes were happening much more quickly than he had anticipated. The need for business schools to support lifelong learning and development has never been greater—we need frequent human interactions, bringing together diverse experiences, over the course of our careers. Perhaps business schools can fill a growing void, becoming that “third place” for human grounding and interaction, behind family and work.

Finally, my experience at the forum also revealed a world thirsty for more evidence about what works and what does not, and under what conditions. Managers need relevant, credible research, contextualized, and they need access to it now—online and on-demand. That, however, must be the subject of another post.

Thanks to Richard Staub and Santiago Iniguez for making my participation in GPDF15 possible.

Dan LeClair is focused on strategy and innovation in business education. You can follow him on Twitter @DrLeClair.