Be The Change: Promoting Corporate Social Responsibility

Meghan M. Biro

I’m sure you’ve heard all about the millennial generation. Those 20- to 36-year-olds, pampered throughout their lives by their baby-boomer parents, have grown up to be self-absorbed, entitled narcissists, right?

Actually, this isn’t an accurate picture of millennials—and since they now represent the largest share of the American workforce, that’s good to know. Despite widely held perceptions about their supposedly “me-first” ways, these younger workers rank social responsibility as an important tenet of life and are looking to work for companies that share their sense of social responsibility.

In case you doubt the desire of millennials to align themselves with socially responsible companies, look no further than the Horizon Media’s Finger on the Pulse study, which found that 81 percent of this younger generation expect companies to make a public commitment to good corporate citizenship. Millennials also put their money where their mouth is: According to the 2015 Cone Communications Millennial CSR Study, 62 percent are willing to take a pay cut to work for a socially responsible company—a full six percentage points higher than the average response of all age groups surveyed.

The need for a CSR plan

Obviously, then, companies need to do more than just offer perks like free snacks to recruit and retain this valuable workforce segment. Having a formal corporate social responsibility (CSR) program is the key way for companies to demonstrate their commitment to the positive ideals their employees espouse. And here’s a PR bonus for you: By promoting corporate social responsibility, you’re also conveying to your customers that you care about the world outside your company’s walls.

At most companies, the HR department falls into the organizational sweet spot for managing the CSR program. As Angela Schettino of Think People Consulting observes, a company’s HR strategy links to the four components of any successful CSR initiative. First, of course, are employees, in keeping with HR’s focus on their rights and well-being, but the three other components—environment, community, and marketplace—also fall under HR’s domain.

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HR’s most appropriate role in managing a CSR plan would be to monitor its adoption and then document its successes throughout the company. In the area of energy conservation, for instance, the HR department could start by implementing a company-wide recycling program and promote earth-friendly practices like subsidizing public transit costs or encouraging employees to shut off the lights, computers, printers, and copiers during non-work hours.

Try these CSR initiatives

Here are some other ideas for HR departments and companies to consider as they implement and manage their CSR program.

  • Create a company culture compatible with CSR. As Strategic HR Inc. describes, this can start with your job advertisements and interview process. Use corporate social responsibility as a recruitment tactic, which will attract the socially responsible employees who will support and sustain your program. Perhaps even consider adding a position—chief sustainability officer—whose role would be consistent with your company’s focus on CSR.
  • Pick a cause. Look at what other successful companies are doing and see if your organization can model a similar CSR program. Starbucks, for instance, has several programs in place to promote environmental sustainability. Toms has a program called “Giving Shoes,” in which the company donates a pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair of shoes purchased. To date, the company has given away more than 70 million new pairs of shoes.
  • Allow time off for volunteering. As part of your employee engagement program, give employees a few days of volunteer time off (VTO) per fiscal year to do something meaningful in their communities.
  • Donate to a good cause.Take a cue from companies like Jersey Mike’s Subs, which has raised more than $20 million since 2010 by donating 100 percent of its sales nationwide on its annual Day of Giving. Or consider the corporate goodwill generated by Patagonia, a sustainable clothing brand that gave all $10 million from its Black Friday 2016 sales to hundreds of grassroots environmental organizations.
  • Match employee contributions. Convey to employees that “we’re all in this together” by matching their contributions to a charity of their choice. It’s a way for them to stretch their giving dollars—and for you to demonstrate firsthand that the causes they value are causes that you value as well.

Demonstrating your company’s commitment to the communities and environment in which you work isn’t just the right ethical decision, it’s good business. As Patti Dunham, MA, MBA, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, states, “…becoming socially aware and responsible helps the company’s bottom line. The impact on the organization’s public image and becoming an “employer of choice” because of these initiatives is immeasurable.”

If you haven’t already done so, consider empowering your HR department to implement and manage a corporate social responsibility program this year.

For more on the importance of bringing purpose into the workplace, see Why Companies Of The Future Need Purpose.

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About Meghan M. Biro

Meghan Biro is talent management and HR tech brand strategist, analyst, digital catalyst, author and speaker. I am the founder and CEO of TalentCulture and host of the #WorkTrends live podcast and Twitter Chat. Over my career, I have worked with early-stage ventures and global brands like Microsoft, IBM and Google, helping them recruit and empower stellar talent. I have been a guest on numerous radio shows and online forums, and has been a featured speaker at global conferences. I am the co-author of The Character-Based Leader: Instigating a Revolution of Leadership One Person at a Time, and a regular contributor at Forbes, Huffington Post, Entrepreneur and several other media outlets. I also serve on advisory boards for leading HR and technology brands.

Purpose-Led Organizations: Another Buzzword Or Something More?

Yvonne Fandert

Were jobs in the past meaningless before consultants, researchers, and practitioners identified purpose as a critical differentiator for companies to be successful in the digital age?

Is becoming purpose-driven more hype leading to the expectation of increased profit for those who talk about it? Or is there something more substantial behind this new corporate trend?

And if so, how much of it is really new versus old wine in new bottles? And more importantly, what does it mean for us as HR professionals?

According to a KornFerry study, purpose-driven businesses have 4x the compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of companies in the S&P 500 Consumer Sector. Nearly all employees (90%) in purpose-driven organizations report feeling engaged, compared to 32% of employees in other companies. As SAP colleague Florian Kunzke highlighted in this article, purpose makes people 3x more likely to stay in an organization, leading to 1.4x more employee engagement, and 2x more optimistic employees. It also creates 75% more customer retention.

So there seem to be some convincing – profit and nonprofit related – arguments to inspire organizations to become purpose-led.

What does it mean to be purpose-led?

According to Markus Heinen, chief innovation officer of EY, “Purpose is an aspirational reason for being that is grounded in humanity and inspires action.” In other words, an organization needs to stand for something it believes in, going beyond profit and impacting society. This can, of course, extend beyond pure social projects. If a company can direct its vision, mission, and business model towards something that creates purpose, and can demonstrate how their products create purpose, it is even stronger.

Many great companies show a strong focus on purpose, including:

  • Unilever, one of the top-ranked purposeful brands, states that to succeed requires “the highest standards of corporate behavior towards everyone we work with, the communities we touch, and the environment on which we have an impact.”
  • Patagonia, which produces gear and clothes for alpine and outdoor sports, is determined to reduce waste and impact on the environment. Why? To allow its customers and society to continue to enjoy what they are passionate about: the great outdoors. These goals are reflected in the corporate values as well as many processes such as the famous buy-back initiative of used gear.
  • Zappos and its famous “happiness culture” create not only a distinct corporate culture, but also happy, loyal customers. 

The causality and relevance of purpose

Purpose-led companies usually have strong employee engagement that has increased year over year; they also see an increase in retention. Yet, we could conclude that there is a direct correlation between purposeful activities and the impact just mentioned. But would that be “jumping to conclusions”? My personal view is that purpose certainly helps, but profit is essential as well: not only to fund the social projects, but also to keep your employees happy with a fair and competitive salaries. Purpose and profit should not be seen as contradictions, but complementing factors. As research, such as WillisTowersWatson in 2016, shows, base pay/salary is the second top attraction and retention driver.

Let’s have a deeper look at causality: The impact of the unconsciousness on behavior and decisions is not a new study field. If you research the field of social and market psychology, you will find many studies that show how often we behave irrationally, driven by heuristics and emotional arousal. To put this in context: people behave in a way that makes them feel good; they prefer to be around people they trust; they are more likely to buy products in an environment that makes them feel good. This in turn shows that experience is vital. Therefore, it is vital to focus on consumer experience, treating each other as internal consumers, and putting the consumer into the center of everything.

The human wish to do something meaningful is also not new. It seems to be ingrained in our human nature. Asking “what’s the purpose of (my) life” might be as old as human mankind. At the same time, the answer to it will differ depending on the context, circumstances and the phase/situation of life you are in right now. While, for example, after WWII, people in highly impacted countries focused on starting from scratch to survive hunger and get a job to feed their children. Many are luckily now in a much better position. The unemployment rate is low, and for many people, earning money is not enough anymore, as they take it for granted.

Contributing to a higher purpose has become more relevant. Somehow like the pyramid of needs: moving from core needs towards personal growth and development, until contributing to a higher purpose that goes beyond the individual contribution. In addition, experts confirm that we are in a candidate-driven market, in which candidates hold more power than employers, a trend that seems to be deepening. This means that employees have the power to request a deeper purpose from their employers, a situation that did not exist 50 years ago: “Future generations want the organizations where they are spending their time and energy to match their personal values and purpose in life,” according to Nancy Birkhölzer, CEO ixds. This is also underlined by a recent study done by the MRI Network: 90% of all recruiters are convinced that we are in a candidate-driven market.

experts have described the current labor market as “candidate-driven.” Job seekers hold more power than employers, a trend that seems to be deepening

2017 Recruiter Sentiment Study MRI Network

Source: 2017 Recruiter Sentiment Study, MRI Network.

How to drive purpose in organizations

Now after having explored the various impact, and the increasing relevance that purpose has, let’s have a quick look at some general principles and best practices that helps organizations to improve their purpose:

  • Have an authentic purpose that also fits your business model
  • Communicate it to the employees in a clear way -make them believe in it, and let them experience it
  • Have each team, department, and role design their own purpose which serves an overall purpose and let them act according to it
  • Hold people accountable to the purpose
  • Define metrics and goals based on purpose to assess effectiveness

Conclusion

The relevance of purposefulness has increased over the past years. While knowledge about the human mechanics that are running in the background is not fundamentally new, how it’s being expanded into the business world, including profit organizations, is. This has to do with the increasing importance of employer branding to attract but also retain best talents.

Nevertheless, it is imperative to go beyond pure lip service or marketing brand – just writing down a purpose-driven mission statement is not enough. Purpose-led companies need to be followed by consistent leadership behavior, tangible examples, and continuously evolving and adapting strategy and execution along with the rapidly changing environment.

Profit and purpose do not contradict, but they can complement each other. Successful companies will find a way to keep profit and purpose in a healthy balance.

For more on this topic, see Engage Employee Engagement By Connecting Them To Your Company’s Purpose.

This article originally appeared on LinkedIn Pulse.

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Yvonne Fandert

About Yvonne Fandert

Yvonne Fandert is leading the HR Office for the MEE and EMEA region at SAP. She joined SAP in 2006 and held various local and regional HR Business Partner positions, as well as project director positions within HR. She did a Master in Business Administration at the University of Mannheim, Germany, and a Master of Human Resource Management and Coaching at the University of Sydney, Australia. Being a certified coach, Yvonne feels passionate about personal development, and is a firm believer of personal growth via constant learning and self-reflection.

Corporate Social Responsibility: More Than A Checkbox On An Annual Report

Gergi Abboud

I know from first-hand experience what it means to be displaced.

Displaced from everything—your family, your routine, your possessions, your basic amenities. Everything. While I experienced a fraction of what some refugees go through today, nevertheless, it was devastating for my parents and terribly hard for me as a child.

Those images and experiences remain with me. And they serve as an important reality check to remind me of how hard life can get for no fault of your own making. But I was lucky. I had the opportunity to go back to my community, to my country and be welcomed by them. Many refugees today face challenges in developing their own potential and returning to their homes.

As the world faces increasing social, political and economic dilemmas, never before has corporate social responsibility (CSR) been more relevant to businesses as it is today. Business growth is directly linked to smart investments in CSR—which also helps attract and retain customers and top talent.

And perhaps, most importantly, because businesses today are defined by their people, it becomes critical for organizations to support causes that are close to the hearts of their people.

Aligning business objectives with a greater purpose

CSR is no longer a mere checkbox on an annual report. Traditionally perceived as a tool to seek stakeholder approval and trusted brand recognition, CSR has now evolved to become one of the strategic pillars for holistic business growth.

Doing ‘good’ is not only about giving back to community and needs to be an organizational quest for finding purpose that aligns with business objectives. Only then can it leave lasting value and impact for those who receive it. And the ones involved in extending it.

An imbalance of opportunity and need

We live in world of contrasts. People are often polarized between having opportunity and not. A good example of this is the ongoing digital transformation that is sweeping the business world.

For example, Gartner predicts that the region’s IT market in the region continues to grow at 2% in 2017, presenting strong technology job opportunities. Among companies in the Middle East and North Africa, 43% are looking for Junior Executives, according to Bayt.com. And the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia alone is short 37,000 ICT professionals. Similarly, the Saudi Communications and Information Technology Commission states that Saudi Arabia is short of a cumulative 37,000 ICT professionals from 2014-2017.

Potentially, this trend means that all markets will need a steady supply of core computing and coding skills to support this growth—which means more jobs. However, the reality remains far from ideal.

As per statistics from Bayt.com and YouGov, youth unemployment in the Middle East and North Africa is among the highest in the world—23 percent, which is nearly double the global average of 13%. However, that is not due to a lack of workers—it’s due to a lack of workers with the right skills.

Solving real world problems with skilled volunteering

To help address this, let’s think of ways organizations can contribute to lasting social impact. One key way Skilled Volunteering, which allows organizations to harness specifically their skill sets and strengths to add value to CSR initiatives. It helps bridge the social ‘needs’ gap as well as address other real-world problems. And a great live example of this is the Refugee Code Week (RCW).

It uses skilled volunteering to alleviate not only the current, but the future of the refugee situation.  It looks at providing refugees with access to coding literacy. To me, this is the closest thing to a super power than can be taught in today’s digital age. Coding literacy can help empower refugees to become sustainable and employable, and in turn help empower other young refugees in the long run.

Turning refugee settlements into recruitment grounds

How exactly is RCW solving real-world problems? Most obviously, it helps address the refugee condition, giving them hope and empowering a better future for them based on education. It also helps address another serious challenge facing companies and nations today—a crippling paucity of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) skills. CSR initiatives such as RCW serve as the perfect bridge, leapfrogging literacy into employability.

Particularly, coding literacy happens to be the rare skill, that can be taught in a minimal timeframe (as little as 16 weeks) while making people immediately employable. While those being supported gain the necessary skills, companies on the other hand can tap into this massive refugee talent pool and meet their ICT skills shortfall. And the success of our first Bootcamp, with nearly 100% placement of all trainees including refugees, stands testament to the viability of this model.

Education bears the torch

The impact of the refugee situation has been monumental on their lives. Many refugees are not optimistic about their future, and are calling on the global community to come together to find practical solutions to education and careers. However, after volunteering myself, and seeing the heartbreaking situation first hand, I passionately feel that the entire weight of changing the refugee situation hinges on education. Having heard countless moving stories from the camps, I’ve see that the hope in peoples’ hearts is born from one of their most precious possessions carried on them even through displacement—their high school diplomas and educational degrees.

And this gives hope to us as well, to help turn their resentment and negativity into productive time spent to learn skills that can help them integrate better into the community. It gives us direction as corporates, to look at the refugee pool as untapped intellectual potential that can help solve the shortage of ICT skills in the global economy.

And the end objective, is to see these young refugees and youth become social innovators, solving social problems not just with their skills and mindset, but with hope and conviction in their hearts.

With thanks to Batoul Husseini, Global Lead for Refugee Code Week.

For more on this topic, see Can The Social Enterprise Reshape Big Business?

This article originally appeared on Forbes SAPVoice.

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Gergi Abboud

About Gergi Abboud

Gergi Abboud is the Managing Director of the Gulf, North Africa, Levant, and Pakistan regions at SAP. He is responsible for developing the company’s in-country presence and growth strategy, as well as
sales, planning, and marketing activities across these regions. Connect with him on LinkedIn or Twitter @gergiabboud.

Why Strategic Plans Need Multiple Futures

By Dan Wellers, Kai Goerlich, and Stephanie Overby , Kai Goerlich and Stephanie Overby

When members of Lowe’s Innovation Labs first began talking with the home improvement retailer’s senior executives about how disruptive technologies would affect the future, the presentations were well received but nothing stuck.

“We’d give a really great presentation and everyone would say, ‘Great job,’ but nothing would really happen,” says Amanda Manna, head of narratives and partnerships for the lab.

The team realized that it needed to ditch the PowerPoints and try something radical. The team’s leader, Kyle Nel, is a behavioral scientist by training. He knows people are wired to receive new information best through stories. Sharing far-future concepts through narrative, he surmised, could unlock hidden potential to drive meaningful change.

So Nel hired science fiction writers to pen the future in comic book format, with characters and a narrative arc revealed pane by pane.

The first storyline, written several years before Oculus Rift became a household name, told the tale of a couple envisioning their kitchen renovation using virtual reality headsets. The comic might have been fun and fanciful, but its intent was deadly serious. It was a vision of a future in which Lowe’s might solve one of its long-standing struggles: the approximately US$70 billion left on the table when people are unable to start a home improvement project because they can’t envision what it will look like.

When the lab presented leaders with the first comic, “it was like a light bulb went on,” says Manna. “Not only did they immediately understand the value of the concept, they were convinced that if we didn’t build it, someone else would.”

Today, Lowe’s customers in select stores can use the HoloRoom How To virtual reality tool to learn basic DIY skills in an interactive and immersive environment.

Other comics followed and were greeted with similar enthusiasm—and investment, where possible. One tells the story of robots that help customers navigate stores. That comic spawned the LoweBot, which roamed the aisles of several Lowe’s stores during a pilot program in California and is being evaluated to determine next steps.

And the comic about tools that can be 3D-printed in space? Last year, Lowe’s partnered with Made in Space, which specializes in making 3D printers that can operate in zero gravity, to install the first commercial 3D printer in the International Space Station, where it was used to make tools and parts for astronauts.

The comics are the result of sending writers out on an open-ended assignment, armed with trends, market research, and other input, to envision what home improvement planning might look like in the future or what the experience of shopping will be in 10 years. The writers come back with several potential story ideas in a given area and work collaboratively with lab team members to refine it over time.

The process of working with writers and business partners to develop the comics helps the future strategy team at Lowe’s, working under chief development officer Richard D. Maltsbarger, to inhabit that future. They can imagine how it might play out, what obstacles might surface, and what steps the company would need to take to bring that future to life.

Once the final vision hits the page, the lab team can clearly envision how to work backward to enable the innovation. Importantly, the narrative is shared not only within the company but also out in the world. It serves as a kind of “bat signal” to potential technology partners with capabilities that might be required to make it happen, says Manna. “It’s all part of our strategy for staking a claim in the future.”

Planning must become completely oriented toward—and sourced from—the future.

Companies like Lowe’s are realizing that standard ways of planning for the future won’t get them where they need to go. The problem with traditional strategic planning is that the approach, which dates back to the 1950s and has remained largely unchanged since then, is based on the company’s existing mission, resources, core competencies, and competitors.

Yet the future rarely looks like the past. What’s more, digital technology is now driving change at exponential rates. Companies must be able to analyze and assess the potential impacts of the many variables at play, determine the possible futures they want to pursue, and develop the agility to pivot as conditions change along the way.

This is why planning must become completely oriented toward—and sourced from—the future, rather than from the past or the present. “Every winning strategy is based on a compelling insight, but most strategic planning originates in today’s marketplace, which means the resulting plans are constrained to incremental innovation,” says Bob Johansen, distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future. “Most corporate strategists and CEOs are just inching their way to the future.” (Read more from Bob Johansen in the Thinkers story, “Fear Factor.”)

Inching forward won’t cut it anymore. Half of the S&P 500 organizations will be replaced over the next decade, according to research company Innosight. The reason? They can’t see the portfolio of possible futures, they can’t act on them, or both. Indeed, when SAP conducts future planning workshops with clients, we find that they usually struggle to look beyond current models and assumptions and lack clear ideas about how to work toward radically different futures.

Companies that want to increase their chances of long-term survival are incorporating three steps: envisioning, planning for, and executing on possible futures. And doing so all while the actual future is unfolding in expected and unexpected ways.

Those that pull it off are rewarded. A 2017 benchmarking report from the Strategic Foresight Research Network (SFRN) revealed that vigilant companies (those with the most mature processes for identifying, interpreting, and responding to factors that induce change) achieved 200% greater market capitalization growth and 33% higher profitability than the average, while the least mature companies experienced negative market-cap growth and had 44% lower profitability.

Looking Outside the Margins

“Most organizations lack sufficient capacity to detect, interpret, and act on the critically important but weak and ambiguous signals of fresh threats or new opportunities that emerge on the periphery of their usual business environment,” write George S. Day and Paul J. H. Schoemaker in their book Peripheral Vision.

But that’s exactly where effective future planning begins: examining what is happening outside the margins of day-to-day business as usual in order to peer into the future.

Business leaders who take this approach understand that despite the uncertainties of the future there are drivers of change that can be identified and studied and actions that can be taken to better prepare for—and influence—how events unfold.

That starts with developing foresight, typically a decade out. Ten years, most future planners agree, is the sweet spot. “It is far enough out that it gives you a bit more latitude to come up with a broader way to the future, allowing for disruption and innovation,” says Brian David Johnson, former chief futurist for Intel and current futurist in residence at Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination. “But you can still see the light from it.”

The process involves gathering information about the factors and forces—technological, business, sociological, and industry or ecosystem trends—that are effecting change to envision a range of potential impacts.

Seeing New Worlds

Intel, for example, looks beyond its own industry boundaries to envision possible future developments in adjacent businesses in the larger ecosystem it operates in. In 2008, the Intel Labs team, led by anthropologist Genevieve Bell, determined that the introduction of flexible glass displays would open up a whole new category of foldable consumer electronic devices.

To take advantage of that advance, Intel would need to be able to make silicon small enough to fit into some imagined device of the future. By the time glass manufacturer Corning unveiled its ultra-slim, flexible glass surface for mobile devices, laptops, televisions, and other displays of the future in 2012, Intel had already created design prototypes and kicked its development into higher gear. “Because we had done the future casting, we were already imagining how people might use flexible glass to create consumer devices,” says Johnson.

Because future planning relies so heavily on the quality of the input it receives, bringing in experts can elevate the practice. They can come from inside an organization, but the most influential insight may come from the outside and span a wide range of disciplines, says Steve Brown, a futurist, consultant, and CEO of BaldFuturist.com who worked for Intel Labs from 2007 to 2016.

Companies may look to sociologists or behaviorists who have insight into the needs and wants of people and how that influences their actions. Some organizations bring in an applied futurist, skilled at scanning many different forces and factors likely to coalesce in important ways (see Do You Need a Futurist?).

Do You Need a Futurist?

Most organizations need an outsider to help envision their future. Futurists are good at looking beyond the big picture to the biggest picture.

Business leaders who want to be better prepared for an uncertain and disruptive future will build future planning as a strategic capability into their organizations and create an organizational culture that embraces the approach. But working with credible futurists, at least in the beginning, can jump-start the process.

“The present can be so noisy and business leaders are so close to it that it’s helpful to provide a fresh outside-in point of view,” says veteran futurist Bob Johansen.

To put it simply, futurists like Johansen are good at connecting dots—lots of them. They look beyond the boundaries of a single company or even an industry, incorporating into their work social science, technical research, cultural movements, economic data, trends, and the input of other experts.

They can also factor in the cultural history of the specific company with whom they’re working, says Brian David Johnson, futurist in residence at Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination. “These large corporations have processes and procedures in place—typically for good reasons,” Johnson explains. “But all of those reasons have everything to do with the past and nothing to do with the future. Looking at that is important so you can understand the inertia that you need to overcome.”

One thing the best futurists will say they can’t do: predict the future. That’s not the point. “The future punishes certainty,” Johansen says, “but it rewards clarity.” The methods futurists employ are designed to trigger discussions and considerations of possibilities corporate leaders might not otherwise consider.

You don’t even necessarily have to buy into all the foresight that results, says Johansen. Many leaders don’t. “Every forecast is debatable,” Johansen says. “Foresight is a way to provoke insight, even if you don’t believe it. The value is in letting yourself be provoked.”

External expert input serves several purposes. It brings everyone up to a common level of knowledge. It can stimulate and shift the thinking of participants by introducing them to new information or ideas. And it can challenge the status quo by illustrating how people and organizations in different sectors are harnessing emerging trends.

The goal is not to come up with one definitive future but multiple possibilities—positive and negative—along with a list of the likely obstacles or accelerants that could surface on the road ahead. The result: increased clarity—rather than certainty—in the face of the unknown that enables business decision makers to execute and refine business plans and strategy over time.

Plotting the Steps Along the Way

Coming up with potential trends is an important first step in futuring, but even more critical is figuring out what steps need to be taken along the way: eight years from now, four years from now, two years from now, and now. Considerations include technologies to develop, infrastructure to deploy, talent to hire, partnerships to forge, and acquisitions to make. Without this vital step, says Brown, everybody goes back to their day jobs and the new thinking generated by future planning is wasted. To work, the future steps must be tangible, concrete, and actionable.

Organizations must build a roadmap for the desired future state that anticipates both developments and detours, complete with signals that will let them know if they’re headed in the right direction. Brown works with corporate leaders to set indicator flags to look out for on the way to the anticipated future. “If we see these flagged events occurring in the ecosystem, they help to confirm the strength of our hypothesis that a particular imagined future is likely to occur,” he explains.

For example, one of Brown’s clients envisioned two potential futures: one in which gestural interfaces took hold and another in which voice control dominated. The team set a flag to look out for early examples of the interfaces that emerged in areas such as home appliances and automobiles. “Once you saw not just Amazon Echo but also Google Home and other copycat speakers, it would increase your confidence that you were moving more towards a voice-first era rather than a gesture-first era,” Brown says. “It doesn’t mean that gesture won’t happen, but it’s less likely to be the predominant modality for communication.”

How to Keep Experiments from Being Stifled

Once organizations have a vision for the future, making it a reality requires testing ideas in the marketplace and then scaling them across the enterprise. “There’s a huge change piece involved,”
says Frank Diana, futurist and global consultant with Tata Consultancy Services, “and that’s the place where most
businesses will fall down.”

Many large firms have forgotten what it’s like to experiment in several new markets on a small scale to determine what will stick and what won’t, says René Rohrbeck, professor of strategy at the Aarhus School of Business and Social Sciences. Companies must be able to fail quickly, bring the lessons learned back in, adapt, and try again.

Lowe’s increases its chances of success by creating master narratives across a number of different areas at once, such as robotics, mixed-reality tools, on-demand manufacturing, sustainability, and startup acceleration. The lab maps components of each by expected timelines: short, medium, and long term. “From there, we’ll try to build as many of them as quickly as we can,” says Manna. “And we’re always looking for that next suite of things that we should be working on.” Along the way certain innovations, like the HoloRoom How-To, become developed enough to integrate into the larger business as part of the core strategy.

One way Lowe’s accelerates the process of deciding what is ready to scale is by being open about its nascent plans with the world. “In the past, Lowe’s would never talk about projects that weren’t at scale,” says Manna. Now the company is sharing its future plans with the media and, as a result, attracting partners that can jump-start their realization.

Seeing a Lowe’s comic about employee exoskeletons, for example, led Virginia Tech engineering professor Alan Asbeck to the retailer. He helped develop a prototype for a three-month pilot with stock employees at a Christiansburg, Virginia, store.

The high-tech suit makes it easier to move heavy objects. Employees trying out the suits are also fitted with an EEG headset that the lab incorporates into all its pilots to gauge unstated, subconscious reactions. That direct feedback on the user experience helps the company refine its innovations over time.

Make the Future Part of the Culture

Regardless of whether all the elements of its master narratives come to pass, Lowe’s has already accomplished something important: It has embedded future thinking into the culture of the company.

Companies like Lowe’s constantly scan the environment for meaningful economic, technology, and cultural changes that could impact its future assessments and plans. “They can regularly draw on future planning to answer challenges,” says Rohrbeck. “This intensive, ongoing, agile strategizing is only possible because they’ve done their homework up front and they keep it updated.”

It’s impossible to predict what’s going to happen in the future, but companies can help to shape it, says Manna of Lowe’s. “It’s really about painting a picture of a preferred future state that we can try to achieve while being flexible and capable of change as we learn things along the way.” D!


About the Authors

Dan Wellers is Global Lead, Digital Futures, at SAP.

Kai Goerlich is Chief Futurist at SAP’s Innovation Center Network.

Stephanie Overby is a Boston-based business and technology journalist.


Read more thought provoking articles in the latest issue of the Digitalist Magazine, Executive Quarterly.

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About Dan Wellers

Dan Wellers is founder and leader of Digital Futures at SAP, a strategic insights and thought leadership discipline that explores how digital technologies drive exponential change in business and society.

Kai Goerlich

About Kai Goerlich

Kai Goerlich is the Chief Futurist at SAP Innovation Center network His specialties include Competitive Intelligence, Market Intelligence, Corporate Foresight, Trends, Futuring and ideation.

Share your thoughts with Kai on Twitter @KaiGoe.heif Futu

About Stephanie Overby

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The Human Factor In An AI Future

Dan Wellers and Kai Goerlich

As artificial intelligence becomes more sophisticated and its ability to perform human tasks accelerates exponentially, we’re finally seeing some attempts to wrestle with what that means, not just for business, but for humanity as a whole.

From the first stone ax to the printing press to the latest ERP solution, technology that reduces or even eliminates physical and mental effort is as old as the human race itself. However, that doesn’t make each step forward any less uncomfortable for the people whose work is directly affected – and the rise of AI is qualitatively different from past developments.

Until now, we developed technology to handle specific routine tasks. A human needed to break down complex processes into their component tasks, determine how to automate each of those tasks, and finally create and refine the automation process. AI is different. Because AI can evaluate, select, act, and learn from its actions, it can be independent and self-sustaining.

Some people, like investor/inventor Elon Musk and Alibaba founder and chairman Jack Ma, are focusing intently on how AI will impact the labor market. It’s going to do far more than eliminate repetitive manual jobs like warehouse picking. Any job that involves routine problem-solving within existing structures, processes, and knowledge is ripe for handing over to a machine. Indeed, jobs like customer service, travel planning, medical diagnostics, stock trading, real estate, and even clothing design are already increasingly automated.

As for more complex problem-solving, we used to think it would take computers decades or even centuries to catch up to the nimble human mind, but we underestimated the exponential explosion of deep learning. IBM’s Watson trounced past Jeopardy champions in 2011 – and just last year, Google’s DeepMind AI beat the reigning European champion at Go, a game once thought too complex for even the most sophisticated computer.

Where does AI leave human?

This raises an urgent question for the future: How do human beings maintain our economic value in a world in which AI will keep getting better than us at more and more things?

The concept of the technological singularity – the point at which machines attain superhuman intelligence and permanently outpace the human mind – is based on the idea that human thinking can’t evolve fast enough to keep up with technology. However, the limits of human performance have yet to be found. It’s possible that people are only at risk of lagging behind machines because nothing has forced us to test ourselves at scale.

Other than a handful of notable individual thinkers, scientists, and artists, most of humanity has met survival-level needs through mostly repetitive tasks. Most people don’t have the time or energy for higher-level activities. But as the human race faces the unique challenge of imminent obsolescence, we need to think of those activities not as luxuries, but as necessities. As technology replaces our traditional economic value, the economic system may stop attaching value to us entirely unless we determine the unique value humanity offers – and what we can and must do to cultivate the uniquely human skills that deliver that value.

Honing the human advantage

As a species, humans are driven to push past boundaries, to try new things, to build something worthwhile, and to make a difference. We have strong instincts to explore and enjoy novelty and risk – but according to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, these instincts crumble if we don’t cultivate them.

AI is brilliant at automating routine knowledge work and generating new insights from existing data. What it can’t do is deduce the existence, or even the possibility, of information it isn’t already aware of. It can’t imagine radical new products and business models. Or ask previously unconceptualized questions. Or envision unimagined opportunities and achievements. AI doesn’t even have common sense! As theoretical physicist Michio Kaku says, a robot doesn’t know that water is wet or that strings can pull but not push. Nor can robots engage in what Kaku calls “intellectual capitalism” – activities that involve creativity, imagination, leadership, analysis, humor, and original thought.

At the moment, though, we don’t generally value these so-called “soft skills” enough to prioritize them. We expect people to develop their competency in emotional intelligence, cross-cultural awareness, curiosity, critical thinking, and persistence organically, as if these skills simply emerge on their own given enough time. But there’s nothing soft about these skills, and we can’t afford to leave them to chance.

Lessons in being human

To stay ahead of AI in an increasingly automated world, we need to start cultivating our most human abilities on a societal level – and to do so not just as soon as possible, but as early as possible.

Singularity University chairman Peter Diamandis, for example, advocates revamping the elementary school curriculum to nurture the critical skills of passion, curiosity, imagination, critical thinking, and persistence. He envisions a curriculum that, among other things, teaches kids to communicate, ask questions, solve problems with creativity, empathy, and ethics, and accept failure as an opportunity to try again. These concepts aren’t necessarily new – Waldorf and Montessori schools have been encouraging similar approaches for decades – but increasing automation and digitization make them newly relevant and urgent.

The Mastery Transcript Consortium is approaching the same problem from the opposite side, by starting with outcomes. This organization is pushing to redesign the secondary school transcript to better reflect whether and how high school students are acquiring the necessary combination of creative, critical, and analytical abilities. By measuring student achievement in a more nuanced way than through letter grades and test scores, the consortium’s approach would inherently require schools to reverse-engineer their curricula to emphasize those abilities.

Most critically, this isn’t simply a concern of high-tuition private schools and “good school districts” intended to create tomorrow’s executives and high-level knowledge workers. One critical aspect of the challenge we face is the assumption that the vast majority of people are inevitably destined for lives that don’t require creativity or critical thinking – that either they will somehow be able to thrive anyway or their inability to thrive isn’t a cause for concern. In the era of AI, no one will be able to thrive without these abilities, which means that everyone will need help acquiring them. For humanitarian, political, and economic reasons, we cannot just write off a large percentage of the population as disposable.

In the end, anything an AI does has to fit into a human-centered value system that takes our unique human abilities into account. Why would we want to give up our humanity in favor of letting machines determine whether or not an action or idea is valuable? Instead, while we let artificial intelligence get better at being what it is, we need to get better at being human. That’s how we’ll keep coming up with groundbreaking new ideas like jazz music, graphic novels, self-driving cars, blockchain, machine learning – and AI itself.

Read the executive brief Human Skills for the Digital Future.

Build an intelligent enterprise with AI and machine learning to unite human expertise and computer insights. Run live with SAP Leonardo.


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About Dan Wellers

Dan Wellers is founder and leader of Digital Futures at SAP, a strategic insights and thought leadership discipline that explores how digital technologies drive exponential change in business and society.

Kai Goerlich

About Kai Goerlich

Kai Goerlich is the Chief Futurist at SAP Innovation Center network His specialties include Competitive Intelligence, Market Intelligence, Corporate Foresight, Trends, Futuring and ideation.

Share your thoughts with Kai on Twitter @KaiGoe.heif Futu