What is a human organisation?

Guides Viewpoints

Is it just me or is this an absurd question – there’s so many articles posing this question, and yet how many organisations do you know without humans?! 

What’s intriguing is how we got to the point where we need to ask this question in the first place.  

Intriguing but perhaps not surprising.  Since the industrial revolution we’ve treated people in organisations as if they were cogs in a machine. This machine paradigm is alive and ticking today… a functional focus on structure, linear process, aligning, defining, predicting, measuring inputs, outputs, quantifying, setting goals, finely calibrating the human/machine parts to achieve optimal performance. 

At some level I’ve spent a career attempting to invigorate the humanity in organisations, graduating with armfuls of evidence that happy, valued, nurtured and dare I say loved employees perform better, and confused as to why the organisational default has been to demand and expect performance, each generation dishing out the hard work with the same transactional demands they themselves received.  ‘It’s just the way it is’ has never been convincing to me. The lack of awareness of what decades of research supports, has always been disappointing. 

And now just as we seem to be shifting towards a form of leadership that honours the relational, and the many and varied conditions that give rise to sustainable performance, we’ve only gone and invented the ultimate machine, generative AI.   Presently, imminently, and possibly faster than exponential growth, swathes of jobs, and so our organisations, will literally become machines.  

We’re already confronting the choice of whether to employ a human or use AI.  Perhaps straightforward with a machine mindset – less obvious when we consider the complex human ecology those decisions land in.  In an epidemic of loneliness, replacing the human on the check-out with a self-service till has consequences – and there are consequences, of consequences, of consequences, of consequences… 

Rather than feeling as though it’s too late, it feels even more urgent that we ask this question – what is a human organisation? 

For me this question has two directions –  

The first points to the humans within the organisation: are they seen for what they are, relational beings with imagination, possibilities, dreams, disappointments and awe-inspiring, unpredictable complexity and potential.  

The second points to the humans impacted by the organisation – individual people and wider communities in interdependence with the wider ecology – is the organisation in service of this wider human flourishing or indifferent to the consequences? 

Now is the time to confront our freedom and make conscious choices – who do we choose to be? What future do we choose to create for our children and grandchildren? How do we nourish human centred values before a different value set is baked into AI by a few technology wizards in Silicon Valley? 

I sometimes experience our work with teams as remembering what it means to be human – relationship, connection, imagination, storytelling. It feels like you only have to scratch just below the surface and alchemy happens, a shift in tone, intention, feeling or perception. Together we see ourselves in each other and feel the fascinating beauty of our difference. 

Maybe this tech-takeover is what we need to finally see our humanity for what it is!  

To fully recognise the beautifully messy wholeness of human beings and lead our organisations for a flourishing world, it’s vital we pay attention, otherwise ‘what is a human organisation’ may only be a question future AI asks of itself!