BarnOwl

Human beings aren’t going anywhere

27 August 2019

A lot has been made and will continue to be made of the impact of the fourth industrial revolution on every single aspect of our private, public and corporate lives. Robotics and artificial intelligence already has and will continue to replace a large number of human-based roles, and of course, at the same time also opens up the path to new functions and tasks that people with the right skills will be able to fulfil and take advantage of. Parallel to this runs an ever increasing human population, a decreasing level of skills in too many parts of the world, and a dwindling stock of the important resources required to sustain this population growth. Short of some sort of massive natural disaster or all out nuclear destruction, or similar cataclysmic event the population numbers will more than likely continue to rise, and the resources in the forms we know them now will continue to become scarcer. And as much as this sounds like just another highlighting of the doom and gloom facing the world as we know it (goodness knows there are enough of those news threads in our faces all day, every day), it isn’t. The rise of technology is fundamentally changing the lives we live, but human beings aren’t going anywhere.

Risk management as a science has grown exponentially since the 1950’s when it first started being documented and studied outside of the realm of insurance. Risk managers have naturally gravitated towards largely more scientific methods for assessing, rating, trending, reporting on and predicting risks and their related information and datasets. Data analysis techniques have improved enormously making scenario planning and dissemination of risk information to the right person at the right time not just possible, but seamless and efficient, enabling informed decision making at every level of an organization. Added to this, the automation of tasks will inherently lead to a far larger and accurate pool of data, culminating in exponentially more reliable, detailed and precise data-driven modelling. This ability to predict with a relatively high degree of precision, thus eliminating as much uncertainty as possible, seems to be a bit of a risk management Holy Grail, and perhaps rightly so. As Laplace theorised in his Philosophical Essay on Probabilities – “We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.” And which risk manager wouldn’t want a quasi-real Nostradamus in their toolkit?

But despite all this technological evolution in risk management, which is clearly significant, human beings still aren’t going anywhere. At the lower end of our behavioural tendencies people are inclined to be unpredictable, unreliable and cursed with a short attention span. Understanding the reasons people make the decisions they do, and which motivations or deterrents to use to encourage or discourage certain behaviours should be the real Holy Grail risk professionals strive to find. Big data is obviously important, but as much as things may change, human beings will still be needed to interpret and implement actions based on the story the data tells us. One might even argue that the human beings involved in the process give meaning to the underlying data, and momentum to the recommended actions thus becoming an even more imperative part of the data chain. The challenge for the modern day risk professional is to maintain a vigorous balance between the management of entities, items, systems and processes, and an understanding of and appreciation for the people involved in, on the fringes of and even outside of the organization that employs us. The value chain has extended way beyond your standard list of stakeholders. Can any organization perpetually survive a scenario where a huge number of human beings are locked out of working, earning and contributing to society? The short answer is no. Having less people working in structured employment does not mean our level of responsibility towards and consideration of people decreases. An argument can be made that the accountability and duty towards society actually increases, and not just at a well-intentioned, fluffy corporate social responsibility (CSR) level. Organizations will need to be far more cognisant of the impact of their actions on the wellbeing of this extended value chain. One can already see this happening with the elevating importance of civil society groups in monitoring and reporting on the behaviour of public and private sector entities. The sight of millions of protestors on the streets of Hong Kong fighting for their freedom, privacy and civil liberties is a reminder of the power of large numbers of people. The globe is shrinking and it’s only a matter of time until we see a global protest involving more than a billion people. Can any organization survive being identified as “the enemy” in such a protest?

Empathy, anger, compassion, humility, ego, emotion, morality, love, hate and consciousness, amongst others, are characteristics that are not easily understood, and in so much as we comprehend them, cannot be imparted on machines. This makes the human element of risk management that much more significant, in spite of the robotisation of the workplace. Wars are started on these non-machine elements. Creativity, as misunderstood as it may be, is interwoven with all these components, and new ideas spring from the well of existential thought in ways that are often hard to comprehend by those of us who haven’t had the same experiences as the one who did the creating. The destiny of entire generations can hinge around events that cannot be recreated by an artificial intelligence. If we, as risk practitioners focus too much on the scientific approach, we miss out on the glue that holds the entire model together.

Again, human beings aren’t going anywhere. If you don’t have at least a fundamental understanding of the machinations and intrigues that result in someone making a specific type of decision when faced with a particular circumstance you will be constantly surprised by the erratic behaviour exhibited by the beings that tie all your frameworks, methodologies, decision trees, flow diagrams and scenarios together. Good communication skills, out-of-the-box thinking, effective conflict management, a grasp of psychological and philosophical ideologies and the ability to motivate people to action might potentially be more important than the usual items found on a recruitment advertisement for a risk manager. And of course, a lot of these are skills gained at the coalface.

But regardless of where they come from, and how these attributes are acquired, they will prove more and more vital as we move into this new industrial revolution. I don’t believe people will ever become irrelevant, and I’m quite confident that we shall find ways to reinvent the role of the human being in this imminent merging with machines without the unnecessary loss of human dignity in the process.

Perhaps I’m wrong, and Isaac Asimov was being prophetic in Reason, a short story in his I, Robot book when he has one of his characters, Cutie (QT-I) say:

“The master created humans first, as the lower type, most easily formed. Gradually, he replaced them by robots, the next higher step, and finally he created me, to take the place of the last humans.”

Whatever scenario plays out, there are more reasons now than ever to put substantial emphasis on the human foundations of the practice of effective risk management. People cannot be encouraged to make better decisions unless you dig deep and find out what makes them tick.

Author – Paul van der Struys, August 2019

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