[Paleopsych] CSM: Only the ethical need apply

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Tue Apr 5 17:49:59 UTC 2005

Only the ethical need apply


In the heavily automated workplace of the future, a keen sense of right
and wrong will become a highly valued job skill.

By Susan Llewelyn Leach | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The "great global brain drain" is how futurist Richard Samson describes
it. As the century progresses, he predicts, more and more jobs will be
sucked up by technology and sophisticated computers, forcing humans to
hone skills machines can't duplicate - at least not yet.

Qualities such as ethical judgment, compassion, intuition,
responsibility, and creativity will be what stand out in an automated

With ethics issues spiking into the news almost weekly, the idea of a
work world in which individual ethical acumen is viewed as an essential
job skill is far from outlandish. The signs are already here.

Wall Street is toying with the idea of creating an ethical code of
conduct. CEOs are getting fired for unethical behavior, even when it
doesn't damage the company's bottom line.

At Boeing, former CEO Harry Stonecipher was hired with a specific
mandate to strengthen company ethics - and then was fired when his
personal ethical code fell short.

What Mr. Samson suggests is that this focus on ethics will intensify as
technology takes up more of the routine work tasks. Signs of
"off-peopling" - his shorthand for human workers being replaced by
computers - are widespread.

Software systems help you do your own check-out at the supermarket and
your own check-in at the airline counter. Virtual attendants answer many
customer-service phones. Internet sales require no human interaction.
And you don't need a travel agent to book your holiday anymore.

But while artificial intelligence can perform numerous job functions, it
brings no ethical considerations to bear on the tasks performed - a
skill that Samson predicts will actually become more crucial as the
world increases its reliance on technology.

It's still a big leap from where we are today to a world in which
white-collar, know-how jobs are largely being performed by computers.
But Samson proposes that this will happen by century's end and points
out that history offers interesting precedent.

In 1900, 40 percent of the American workforce had been laboring in
agriculture. A hundred years later, that number shrank to 2 percent.
Manufacturing took up a lot of the slack until mid-century, when its
numbers started to decline, too.

Now service-sector jobs offer the bulk of employment in the United
States and run the gamut from a Starbucks barista to a haircutter to a
corporate attorney.

"As computers take over more and more routine cognitive tasks, that will
leave humans doing things that can't be automated," says Thomas Malone,
author of "The Future of Work" and a professor at MIT's Sloan School of
Management. "These new technologies will give us chances to make ethical
and other choices in new ways."

But the technological progression doesn't necessarily mean we'll become
more ethical, he adds. "Humans are capable of using automated
information technology for unethical purposes."

The ripple effect of wrongdoing

What is apparent, however, is that the ripple effect of unethical
behavior will become more acute.

"As computer systems make our work increasingly interconnected, so the
chance for one unethical or incompetent person to do tremendous damage
will increase," says David De Long, author of "Lost Knowledge:
Confronting the Threat of an Aging Workforce."

He cites the collapse in 1995 of Barings Bank brought about by a single
rogue trader in Singapore. Even the cascading power blackouts in the US
and Canada in August 2003, while not caused by unethical behavior, came
down to split-second decisions by a handful of individuals.

That technological interconnectivity is already increasing the
importance of human cooperation.

"Individual discretion mattered very little" in manufacturing companies
with huge bureaucracies and elaborate hierarchies, says Joseph Grenny,
author of "Crucial Confrontations." Today, "the need for greater
integration and cooperation in the workplace means human values become
more important because they're the glue of a community."

Shrinking tolerance for lapses

Trust is one of those values. Many of the business scandals in the past
10 years - such as Enron, Worldcom, ImClone, and Parmalat - would have
been met with a yawn 50 or 100 years ago, Mr. Grenny says.

Today, they're more alarming because trust is at a greater premium.

"We feel so much more vulnerable because we are so much more
interdependent," says Grenny. If someone manipulates the markets in
Asia, it will have an effect in London, he adds as an example.

The amount of social capital or trust required in the world today for
things to continue to function is far greater. As a result, tolerance
for ethical lapses is shrinking.

Ethical culture lives or dies every day when someone chooses either to
speak up or to remain silent, Grenny asserts. The consequences of not
speaking up, however, are now more significant.

"The glue of trust in any society is people's capacity to confront
mistrust," says Grenny, whose company VitalSmarts teaches employees the
art of the uncomfortable conversation. You can measure the health of a
society by how openly people are able to confront problems with each
other, he says. To the degree that we can't and the problems remain
suppressed, he says, trust erodes and we start to lose all the benefits
of community.

The whole human system gets pressured significantly by technology,
Grenny says. It exposes the weaknesses of a social system and demands
that we either resolve them or suffer more acutely.

He offers e-mail as an example: In the old days, one person's grievance
may have affected only the immediate team. Today, it can be telegraphed
across an entire organization. One individual can wreck havoc by sharing
a complaint with all the names in his or her entire address book.

"Until people learn to ethically, maturely, and directly deal with their
crucial conversations, technology will amplify rather than mitigate our
dysfunctions," says Grenny.

Dr. De Long offers another side of that argument. Relational knowledge,
the "know-who" rather than the know-how, as he puts it, will become more
critical as organizations increasingly depend on technology systems and

How quickly technology makes the leap is any futurist's guess.

Artificial intelligence researchers have repeatedly been overly
optimistic about the pace at which machines would take over
"intelligent" tasks, Prof. Malone says.

But while past projections have been off, Malone agrees that technology
has already had a dramatic impact on communication.

By reducing the cost of communications exponentially, it is changing the
fundamental structure of business, he says. Organizations will become
more fluid and decentralized as huge numbers of people have enough
information to make intelligent decisions and choices for themselves.

"We're in the early stages of an increase in human freedom in business
that may in the long run be as important a change for business as the
change to democracies was for governments," he says.

One inevitable consequence of this shift, he says, will be more
transparency. Access and openness make it harder to get away with
unethical behavior.

Job descriptions in the future, says William Rothwell, a professor at
Pennsylvania State University, will likely focus on the
three-dimensional view - the type of person rather than simply the

It won't be "just what they can do," he says, "but the kind of person
they are, ethically, morally."

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