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No Business without People

I’ve realized most of my career has been about finding ways to eliminate people in the office with computers and communications, in the factory with robots and automation, and in cars and trucks with automatic driver assistance systems or autonomous vehicles. The truth, of course, is that I have not succeeded in eliminating a single person. I may have replaced a few direct laborers. But, in the process, I’ve created a need for more highly skilled and trained people to operate, program, and service the automation. In fact, I’ve worked to make the systems self-diagnosing so that a highly skilled person is not needed to maintain the equipment. That has not happened, either, with artificial intelligence or any other form of intelligence. Oh yes, there has been progress that some can measure. For others, it is not so obvious.

People may enjoy being able to leave a voice message on a telephone system, but listen to the complaints when the recording is garbled or not delivered in a timely fashion. Of course, I’m showing my age. I still remember pink memo notes for messages (you can still buy them). Voice mail was a great improvement for me, going back some 25 years now. E-mail was a better solution in some ways. Today, it is difficult to get people in their 20’s to do anything other than some sort of direct messaging with an expectation of immediate response. Personally, I hate some of the automated answering systems that take a long time to go through and don’t always make the options clear. Sometimes I am thrilled to here, “and dial 0 to talk to a human.” Office automation has done wonderful things in some ways, but also made us deal more with the urgent than the important and strategic. We still need to disconnect from all the office automation to recharge ourselves at times.

Driverless vehicles are all over the news. The ideas are exciting. The early prototypes are fabulous. The few production items moving in that direction are amazing. For over three years I’ve talked about the driverless vehicles used in remote mines where there are not people around and the need for productivity drives 24/7 operation. At the same time, I see trains with a train operator that can make a mistake and cause huge accidents and loss of life. I see pilots of airplanes that have relied so heavily on the automation that they no longer know what to do in an emergency. I’ve seen nuclear reactors melt down because humans did not respond correctly. Yet, I am not ready to get on a train without an operator, or a plane without a pilot. I do get into an elevator without an operator. I do get on some trams at airports that do not have an operator, though they have people in a control room monitoring things regularly.

Another popular topic of discussion is the transportation infrastructure built up over the last 100 years. Inspections regularly show it is decaying and falling apart. Billions of dollars are needed over decades to improve and replace and expand the infrastructure. But, what I don’t see is sufficient funds and thinking to enable a large number of autonomous vehicles in the future. Yes, some states and countries are doing legal changes to allow driverless vehicles on public roads. But, I don’t think the answer is to put all the automation and intelligence onto the vehicle. Some of it is needed in the infrastructure. That’s one reason I am more favorable to driverless vehicles on private property, such as the remote mines, college campuses, and private campuses for large companies.

Abraham Lincoln in his famous Gettysburg address used the words, “. . . government of the people, for the people, by the people . . .” I believe the same can be said for business. Business is of the people, for the people, by the people.

“of the people”—People form businesses; we even give business rights in law as if the business itself is a person.

“for the people”— Businesses exist to provide something of value to people.

“of the people”—Every business I know is run by people. Many of the issues regarding productivity in business related to engaging people so that they are committed, not just compliant.

People are the driver of business. People are the business. There is no business without people.