Sarah Brennan, who has a popular HR Technology blog, recently wrote about the state of HR Tech in the wake of a downdraft in the LinkedIn stock price.
Around the same time, I began hearing buzz around HR automation, which sounds, to my ear, like an oxymoron, like the work it does is turn humans into automatons. Organizational storytelling can keep that from happening.
My history as a storyteller is rooted in Disney. One of the great joys of working at Disney when I started there was watching the legendary Disney animators animate by hand, with pencils, on paper, a practice that was in its last days at that time. Animation was getting automated, like HR is today. It was like working at the buggy factory when the internal combustion engine came along–a huge change in how work got done, and in the skills required of the workers doing it.
Today, take away the cartoony accoutrement, and we’d be hard-pressed to tell Disney’s animators’ workspaces from those of its IT developers. This is where the enterprise HR tech solutions don’t do it for me. They flatten work that’s already been flattened onto screens. Consequently, they can be like another coat of paint on organizations already wearing a lot of coats. More splatters of color on start-ups whose operations already look like Jackson Pollack paintings from all the investor input. On global companies for whom the color of the new coat always a neutral shade, and the idea of Yet Another Enterprise Paint Job dismays their employees and flattens them emotionally.
The opportunity we are seeing with HR tech is to dimensionalize it in our workspaces. What do we mean by that? You know how CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) added dimension to the old Disney hand drawn style of animation? Advances in technology made all kinds of new effects possible. Shading, lighting, movement, textures, depth–all these new dimensions made the animation more lively, and engaged audiences as never before. Our opportunity today is to do that, not for Wreck-It-Ralph, but for ourselves. How? The same way the animators do. With storytelling. The different being that ours is not story-as-product like it is for an animation studio, ours is the living story of the organization.
The leaders of a storytelling organization use story as a primary sensemaking and guidance system. Storytelling helps them get more value out of data by contextualizing it quickly and intuitively. It adds emotion, meaning and a sense of purpose to the operations of the company and to its customer communication. Story is the beating heart of the organization.
One day, there will be a CEO of a successful global company whose workspace will look more like a music studio than what we think of today as an office. Every working day, she will compose and perform 30 minutes of music. Some days it will be a solo performance. Other days it will be in groups that can range in size from two to 200. On occasion, she will deejay, and play mashups of other peoples’ music. Instead of a conference room, she will have a concert room. The workspace will be wired to translate the CEO’s music algorithmically into different functional languages that are shared across the enterprise, offering insights, guidance, and context for operational activities. The CEO knows her communication will resonate with her company’s network, because that’s what stories do, and her music is a story engine.
We’ve seen enough slivers of this future to know it’s a possibility. World building, intelligent workspaces, biomimicry, VR , AR, improvisation, MIDI, Agile development, Minecraft, Walmart’s morning chant, gamification, Narrative Science, neuroscience–it all works in the direction of the future CEO who’s as much an artist/storyteller as a strategic thinker. For now, it’s fiction. It’s a better future, anyway, than filling out fields in flat forms all day long, in a Brazil-Meets-Office Space movie, a dark comedy about enterprise HR Automation designed to make humans more like machines, instead of the other way around.