People over technology: Finding the right balance
By Cassandra Mascarenhas
The battle between people and technology in corporations has been an ongoing one globally over the past couple of years, with rapidly advancing technology replacing people at a faster rate than ever. Addressing this topical issue that organisations worldwide are currently facing, the PIM Alumni held a PIM Counterpoint session that discussed the topic ‘People before Technology’ in great detail, drawing from the expertise of two well-established individuals from two vastly differing sectors within the country: Millennium IT CEO Tony Weerasinghe and Access Group Chairman Sumal Perera, with the session moderated by Microsoft Country Manager Sriyan De Silva Wijeyeratne.
“Technology has become far more powerful over the last 15 years – huge transformations have occurred with the power of technology; it’s increasing the power people have to do things, making them more productive and increasing per capita worldwide and helping companies do a lot more with less.
The interesting part is that technology is now pushing boundaries even further and stating that we replace people,” Wijeyeratne stated in his opening remarks.
He explained that while he was not considering the bionic man scenario, looking at the regulation work environment, total industries have been transformed over the past couple of years, for example, postal services and banking; technology is pushing the boundary on people pretty hard.
Technology has made it possible for a job that took 15 people previously to be done with just five. The Country Manager pointed out that it is not even an option whether to continue with 15 people in today’s environment – the CEO chooses to run with five because if he does not, his competitor definitely will.
Technology is increasing and the balance people are the most important resource, he added.
“You and I have not radically transformed over the past couple of years; by and large we are evolving pretty slowly. So the only major transformation that has taken place is in the field of technology. To me it seems like it is now technology before people. The impact that technology has in the world has drastically altered. Technology is now calling the shots, determining what roles employees will play in an organisation, how many employees an organisation should have and so on.”
Everybody is coming up with new ideas every day and people like to think they are in charge but Wijeyeratne noted that technology is putting people in a spot and telling one how to run an organisation. “It doesn’t seem to be a very HR friendly conversation. Are people really calling the shots or is technology determining the landscape?” he questioned.
Wijeyeratne also noted that in a survey conducted on the best companies to work on in the world, Microsoft came out on top. Five out of the six top best places to work at right now are IT companies, with the top 25 consisting mainly of IT, manufacturing or telecommunications companies.
People drive technology
Up next, Millennium IT CEO Tony Weerasinghe tackled the issue by emphasising on the fact that having knowledge today is power no more.
“If you want to build an atom bomb, go on Google. Technology has driven people to be much more innovative and people are the ones who make the technology. My thing about technology is that it is the driver behind it who wins the race. Innovation will happen, and people will copy you,” he said.
Weerasinghe went onto to note that those interested in capital markets would know that regulators have been worried about computer trading, which is a challenge. How does one compete with this?
“When people ask me why I put people before technology, I explain that it is because we need to upgrade our science. We need to use our people and get them to use their brains to get them to do things we couldn’t do before, not do the standard things that a computer can do better than them.”
He then cited from an encounter he had with a scientist who had been demonstrating how to operate a commercial plane from an iPhone. When Weerasinghe had asked if he thought a commercial plane would ever be run by a robot, as fighter planes to a great extent are controlled electronically, the scientist had responded saying no, that as a human being he would like to have another human being in charge because he knows that he will do everything in his power to safeguard the passengers, which shows that there is a certain human element still embedded when such decisions are made. Technology exists, he added, but it all depends on the people who control it. At the same time, he cautioned that this does not mean that companies will not reduce people.
“People skills are now being upgraded to a different level. For instance, MIT invested in an accounting system a couple of years ago and it was very tough at the beginning to ask my accountants to use the system. Change is tough for people but it’s us who drive the technology and that is the limit with technology – however brilliant it is, it is people who drive technology.”
People vs. technology: a Sri Lankan perspective
Right after Weerasinghe, Access Group Chairman Sumal Perera tackled the problem from a more of a Sri Lankan perspective. Sri Lanka is a small country, he said, and technology is very relevant in the bigger picture. Looking at the US stock market, one can see that most of the top companies are IT related but Perera noted that in a Sri Lankan sense, all companies that have done well in the country have done so because of the people who have helped the companies reach such great heights. Virtusa and MIT have done well in this country and it is because of Tony and Chris who made the difference, he added.
“The differentiator is people and some organisations do better than others simply because they have better people. Technology at some point is going to be available to everyone, but not all good people. Good people are difficult to find. Get the best business proposal and best technology and give it to a bad person, they will make a mess of it. Surround yourself with good people and they will make a success of their business units.”
Technology is the biggest ingredient for innovation, he stated, adding that there was innovation and technology even 200 years ago and while it was not the type we have now, it shows that technology and innovation will always be there and will be a key ingredient to get ahead but finding good people will consistently be the greatest challenge.
Perera went on to say that he is happy that today, we are in an era where HR and the human capital function is one of the most important sections in a company. As a founder of his company, he was often asked in the past why he had no head of HR, to which he would respond by stating that as a founder of his company, he was the head of his HR. While this is no longer the case, Perera said that he still makes it a point to get involved in the selection of higher level employees.
“If you employ a bad person, it’s much more costly than getting a good person. The most important decisions lie not only when hiring good people but also when firing bad people. Don’t let your heart rule when it comes to people, think with your head as human capital is not about numbers, it’s about having quality,” he said strongly. “From a holistic point of view, you can’t socialise with technology and enjoy yourself with technology. Every successful person is not necessarily happy but every happy person is definitely successful. If you are a people’s person, everything else will fall into place.”
Q and A
After the speakers expressed their views on the subject, Wijeyeratne then posed to them a couple of questions pertaining to the topic.
Q: We can all see how we can make technology grow but talking about the need to keep people growing, is there any kind of insight you can share on that thought?
Weerasinghe: Looking at the companies people would like to work for, I’m not surprised that five of the top six were IT companies; the reason being that IT companies are the only ones that allow you freedom. Although we talk of democracy and freedom of speech, many of us don’t practice it in our organisations. In IT companies, individuals don’t have to work from eight to five; it doesn’t matter how long you work as long as you get the job done.
From my personal viewpoint, I think that Sri Lanka had brilliant engineers until the British came. The problem that the British brought in was that they brought in the white collar worker and put these engineers through a process. I tell my guys when I have an idea and ask them to figure it out as they are the ones with the expertise for it. It was initially very difficult as they would say they hadn’t done it before but they have got the hang of it now.
Q: Talking about Sri Lankan identity, there is no running away from the fact that technology will invade all cultures. What advice do you have on finding the right balance?
Perera: What I meant was that in a Sri Lankan context, technology is not created here, it is acquired. Of course some technology is made here but overall, it is not happening in a larger way because of the scales of operations. Top companies can spend the highest amount of money on research and development but smaller companies cannot afford to do so.
Whatever industry you are in, where technology is concerned, I think that it is one of the greatest ingredients of innovation but technology alone won’t get you anywhere as it is available to everybody.
How one gets ahead is by leveraging on human capital. You can see that organisations with better human capital getting ahead of others.
For example, I recently announced an IPO and just before that, I gave 15 per cent of shares as a gift to my employees. A lot of people told me it that it was a very generous gesture on my part but I told them that I wasn’t being generous, I was investing in human capital as I strongly believe that they are the future of the company. If I only believe in technology and don’t nurture these people to take over, where does that leave the organisation?
We are talking about developing the organisation and nation and helping the community we live in. if the whole emphasis is on improving the organisation, then the emphasis on human capital should be more than ever. Technology, while it can do well, can also do a lot of bad if in the hands of bad people.
Q: What kind of general input can you give non-IT related companies about having the right balance?
Weerasinghe: The most important thing is cost efficiency so don’t feel scared to use technology. Sri Lanka is a little shy when it comes to using technology. The guy who can use technology and drive it to the next level is definitely going to be the winner.
What you have to worry about with globalisation is that there is another generation that doesn’t have the patience that you and I had to get things done and that is driving technology. Today the world is being threatened by technology. That is what will threaten your livelihood: you will see something coming that you don’t expect. It’s happened in India already, brand names are really struggling to stay afloat, so if you don’t upgrade your people skills, that is something you will have to worry about.
Q: Globally there is one group that agrees with putting people before technology and that’s governments – what do you have to say about this?
Perera: First let me tell you how I look at it: people should be differentiated from context and quality. My engineering company has to grow a 100 per cent every year. We are going to try as far as possible to reduce staff and increase technology and in five years, if we are still constructing roads and buildings, I would think that we have lost the battle. However, even for that, you need people to understand the changing external environment, there has to be a balance and there has to be quality people.
When it comes to governments, it is quantity that matters and not quality. It’s a numbers game they are playing. I don’t fault any government worldwide as their first objective is to stay in power and they will do anything to ensure this objective. It is management by objective and when you see that when people from a commercial and economic field take to politics, they change because their objectives are different.
Q: How do you fire bad technology and how fast and easy is it to do?
Weerasinghe: I think it’s a tough call because people invest so much in technology and it’s not cheap. A good example is the London stock exchange. They adopted new technology, launched a new programme, spent around 80 million pounds but if they stuck with it and didn’t make the hard call to buy Millennium’s technology, they would have been destroyed. They were losing two per cent of the market every month before we got there.
What you think is right technology today may not be the one you use tomorrow. The will to move with technology is tough, especially in Sri Lanka and it’s a tough call people are struggling globally.
Perera: If you’re not in charge of technology, I personally think that it’s a good idea to outsource it because that technology is someone else’s so he would know best and at the same time, I mitigate my risk by not taking on the investment upfront although I may lose a bit from my bottom line in the long term.