Our experts reveal where leaders should focus their efforts in 2020 and beyond.
At the beginning of a new year (and a new decade), it’s natural to wonder what’s ahead. As technology and society continue to rapidly transform, it can also be overwhelming for managers and organizations to think about what to tackle next.
With that in mind, we turned to recent authors at MIT Sloan Management Review and asked them: As we enter the 2020s, what is one critical area where leaders and organizations should focus their efforts? The research and diverse expertise of our surveyed experts provides useful insights into the specific skills, investments, and processes that will help companies compete, thrive, and provide value for stakeholders in the years to come.
Build Agile, Collaborative Cultures
Create more agile cultures that enable speed, efficiency, and high employee engagement in work. This will require very different conceptions of culture — away from broad characterizations to recognizing that culture is experienced locally in networks, is variable throughout organizations in ways that can be both positive and negative, and is not effectively shaped by traditional top-down communication or cascading change processes today.
We are finding in my consortium that far more effective approaches to cultural change can be enacted through networks by targeting different kinds of opinion leaders, cocreating desired future states, and more active targeting of points where misalignment in values or priorities exists.
— Rob Cross, coauthor of “A Noble Purpose Alone Won’t Transform Your Company”
Take Climate Change Seriously
The issue that will dominate the 2020s is climate change. All leaders will need to develop strategies for aggressively managing their carbon footprints; working with their value chains to slash energy, emissions, and waste; supporting pro-climate policies at global, state, and local levels; and communicating their progress and approach to employees, customers, investors, and many more. We’ll need innovation across many sectors to shift our economy to clean technologies quickly.
— Andrew Winston, MIT SMR columnist and author of “Should Businesses Stop Flying to Fight Climate Change?”
Effectively Embrace Emotions at Work
By ignoring our feelings at work, we overlook important data and risk preventable mistakes. We send emails that cause unnecessary anxiety, we fail to make work meaningful, and we are more likely to burn out.
Embracing emotions at work means learning how to give more useful, less hurtful feedback (make it specific and actionable), help remote workers feel a sense of belonging (set up virtual social time), and better communicate important decisions (explain your reasoning and host a Q&A).
And for those skeptical about the ROI on doing all this? At Humu, a company that uses behavioral science to make work better (where I lead content), we find that employees who are nudged on themes related to meaning, trust, and empowerment become much happier — and almost 10% more productive. It’s time we learn how to bring emotion into the workplace without letting it run wild.
— Liz Fosslien, coauthor of “How to Create Belonging for Remote Workers”
Understand and Prepare for AI’s Impact
Managers at all levels need to have a good understanding of how AI will augment and enhance the work they are doing. AI has the potential to make virtually all jobs more efficient and more satisfying by automating tedious tasks, processing large amounts of data, predicting human behavior, and producing work that a human can review and approve. Once managers understand this potential, they can encourage their team members to experiment with new ways of doing things.
For example, today in customer service you will see human agents handling complex conversations with consumers while AI assists them seamlessly in the background. Over time, the AI becomes smarter and suggests responses to customers’ questions. Agents train the AI, and AI-powered bots support agents by automating tedious tasks. This improves agent productivity and satisfaction while dramatically improving the customer experience.
— P.V. Kannan, coauthor of “The Future of Customer Service Is AI-Human Collaboration”
Invest In Your Customers
The single most important thing leaders and organizations must do going forward is investing to make their customers more valuable. If you take customer lifetime seriously, the strategic challenge isn’t how best or how frequently to shear the sheep; it’s how we invest in our customers and clients so that they become measurably more valuable — in their own eyes and ours.
— Michael Schrage, author of “Don’t Let Metrics Critics Undermine Your Business”
Take a Learning Approach to Our Differences
In the U.S., our understanding of demographic differences — especially as they relate to race and gender — has become at once more salient and difficult to talk about. People generally approach discussions of such differences with caution at best, brazen ignorance at worst, but most often, silence. This tactic in 2020, however, will likely prove unsuitable due to the changing nature of our workplaces.
To move past our collective notion that race and gender are third-rail topics that should be sidestepped or avoided, a new approach is needed. This approach should be centered on acknowledging differences — and notably, acknowledging that each of us has more to learn about what specific differences mean across our work contexts, life roles, and social structures.
One place to start is the new terminology developed to reflect the reality many live. Consider, for instance, they as a singular pronoun, or the term cisgender, and the distinction between sexual orientation and gender identity. A second place is to explore your and others’ experiences of marginalization, harassment, and privilege. By adopting a learning approach to understanding individual and group differences, each of us can gain valuable insight into myriad, distinct facets of social life.
— Morela Hernandez, MIT SMR columnist and coauthor of “How Algorithms Can Diversify the Startup Pool”
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Strike a Balance Between Human and Machine Capital
In today’s fast-paced, technology-facilitated world with increasing emphasis on AI, it’s important to prevent a potential slide toward the devaluation of the human interface. This is a pitfall that might be particularly relevant for businesses that integrate advanced technologies with enthusiasm at the expense of investment in the human capital — but recent research suggests they do so at their peril.
Business leaders who invest in their employees while keeping pace with technological adoption will see their businesses thrive. Activities and tasks performed by employees continue to evolve toward higher value added and skill levels. In a technology-driven world, human capital will become more rather than less critical in driving superior business performance.
— Sharmila C. Chatterjee, coauthor of “How AI Is Helping Companies Break Silos”
Become a Hybrid Extended Learning Organization
A recent MIT SMR-BCG survey of thousands of companies globally shows that AI investments and applications are now widespread, but only 30% currently generate value. To succeed, leaders will need to focus on the larger strategic goal of building algorithmically powered organizations that can compete on the rate of learning in a rapidly shifting business environment.
In order to achieve these goals, companies will need to reconceive as synergistic combinations of algorithms and people and effectively partition tasks between those where humans, machines, or combinations of the two are the most advantageous. They also need to take measures to create rapid, autonomous learning loops for technology-driven tasks and think critically about algorithmic governance and ethics to ensure both effectiveness and social acceptability. The companies that win the 2020s will be hybrid extended learning organizations (HELOs), and 2020 will be the year where pioneers begin to establish the blueprint for these in earnest.
— Martin Reeves, coauthor of “Fighting the Gravity of Average Performance”