The human edge

Skilled leaders can help to unlock the vast potential of teamwork so that people—with technology’s aid—can power future advances, Korn Ferry’s Rick Lash says. Sixth in a series.


Technology is positioned to reshape the future of work. But without critical components—acceptance and adoption by people—it can never achieve its full impact. Why, when digital technology is so powerful, should organizations still prize the contributions of their people?

Rick Lash is a senior client partner with the firm.

While digital technology is enabling disruption—think Uber, Airbnb or Amazon—it’s also facilitating an era of incredible opportunity. But we must remember that technology’s role is only to facilitate and enable solutions. It cannot create them. The solutions to the biggest issues facing business and society today will come from human minds, because they have capacities unlike anything else on earth, natural or technological. This is the human edge.

Sixth in a series.

The Future of Work: To work is human

Read the full series. >

Only people can conceptualize abstract ideas, intuit connections, conceive of things that don’t exist yet, and turn ideas into reality. Connecting, harnessing and releasing the potential of many human brains to collectively solve problems has driven innovation since the Stone Age. Now digital technology can enable us to connect billions of minds, helping people collectively solve many of the world’s most intractable problems.

Consider how laboratory scientists are crowdsourcing potential cures for AIDS and cancer from communities of online gamers. The FoldIt initiative challenges and connects gamers to model how proteins behave in real viruses and bodies through online puzzles. In 2011, using insights from their gamer community, researchers mapped the structure of a critical enzyme that helps the AIDS virus reproduce, identifying target areas for drug treatment in the process. Previously, scientists had spent a decade trying unsuccessfully to decode its structure.

But as any leader knows, bringing people together and showing them a problem is only half the battle. Without the competencies of emotional intelligence—including cooperation, the ability to influence, empathy, conflict management, and emotional self-awareness—it doesn’t matter how many great minds work on a project. This is especially pertinent today, as organizations are flatter and work is done by multi-skilled teams of people from diverse backgrounds, cultures, and geographies. People must possess the abilities to share power and accept feedback, and they must be curious enough to understand what motivates others.

Fortunately, we have everything we need to enable such advanced collaboration. Archaeological evidence suggests that the human brain increased in size to undertake its biggest challenge−understanding other people and predicting how they may react in any given situation. Although artificial intelligence may be the closest tool to the analytical, computational human brain ever created, it’s only as powerful as the imaginations that use it and is years away from developing full emotional intelligence. The human edge doesn’t just drive new ideas; it also underpins the cooperation required to realize them.

So how can organizations use the human edge to their advantage? What can leaders do to bring people together and successfully facilitate innovation? They must:

  • Create one shared purpose. Aligning the organization around a sense of shared purpose creates a common goal bigger than functional silos, quarterly results, or geographic differences. And as people increasingly are choosing to labor for firms that provide meaningful work, companies that lead with a shared sense of purpose attract top talent.
  • Shift their mindset. Today’s leaders must act more as facilitators than as managers. Connecting people enables them to solve complex problems together.
  • Rethink collaboration. Technology is a tool. Don’t invest in a system unless it is clear how it will foster greater connection. Take the time to understand what technology you should partner your people with, given your unique value proposition to customers.

Thinking for the future, imagining new possibilities, collaborating, cooperating, and managing conflict are uniquely human skills, critical to driving innovation and solving problems. Today, given the complexity of the problems that societies and businesses face, the human edge is needed more than ever.