People think I’m some far-out old man whenever I pull out my 2014 Rand McNally Road Atlas to help me plan out my next Client visit. Like most sales people, I have spent a lot of time behind a windshield, building up expertise on how to get places and in my case, I have no desire to lose it. Is my “sense of direction” a real skill worth saving? Is reading a paper map really any different than letting Siri and the Google brothers do the navigating for me?
Truth is, when it comes to something I know, I’d rather look at the raw data, not the summary. I’d rather see the whole picture than get it parsed out to me based on someone else’s algorithm, without the context of how that algorithm was developed. And the truth is, I need the map, not all the extra recommendations on hotels and restaurants. I’d rather speak with the hotel clerk about good options for dining and whether my client is prominent in the area – his or her algorithms are based on living there.
It’s not that I’m against smart technology. I’m just very wary of its potential downside effects on expertise of any kind and I have taken the words of Gary Klein, a thought leader and expert on decision making, to heart when he wrote “Smart technology can make us stupid.”
I’ve spent my whole adult life in Industry and if there is a tribute that I can make to my brothers and sisters in manufacturing it is the fact that we take the raw forces of nature and direct them to serve our pursuit of making products, often at pressures, temperatures and speeds pushing the known limits of physics. Within the glorious world of the factory, the most pertinent human attributes are knowledge and ability, especially when it comes to safety, quality, productivity and serving the Customer. Expertise abounds.
And like any business segment, we have continued to deploy technological solutions, among them automation. Automation, when wielded by experts, can be a performance enhancer. For instance, an engineer and operator in a chemical plant who lived through a major safety event such as a tank overflow and subsequent fire, can make their system better by adding an overflow protection device and programming the PLC to stop all pumping when the high-level sensor is tripped. That’s “smart technology,” wielded by experts and spot-on when it comes to addressing a local issue.
If that same PLC data is monitored and analyzed by people not at the factory and a summarized recommendation is implemented in a broad-brush stroke edict, “thou shalt not let levels ever go above 80% of the capacity of the tank,” then smart technology could lead to undesirable effects, ironically in the name of safety.
Smart technology and automation are here to stay, and we have placed it at a crossroads with human decision making. As I watch my teenagers develop in to young adults, I know that there are some human skills that will be lost forever. My advice is to be wary and don’t let it dull your own expertise, the expertise of those around you and more importantly, the chance for young people and newcomers to gain their own expertise. The integrating capability of the human mind to assess a situation and reach a decision of what to do next based on experience, is unmatched.