The Why

We are on the leading edge of a technology tsunami — the convergence of several technological advancements, including artificial intelligence, the “internet of things,” virtual and augmented reality, nanotechnology, etc. — that will transform how we live and how we work. The Smart Machine Age will present challenges and opportunities for every person and every organization. A big challenge will be the need for human beings to adapt and iteratively learn at the pace of technological change.

The science is clear. We humans tend to be reflexive thinkers who seek confirmation of our mental models of how our world works. We reflexively are cognitively blind and confirmation biased, and we tend to make broad generalizations based on a few data points. And we generally do not seek out disconfirming data to test our views. If that is not enough, then add in our emotional defensiveness when our views are challenged because our egos identify with what we think we know.

The What

A new level of human performance will be needed in the Smart Machine Age. We humans will be challenged to think and relate at our highest levels much more often because the technological pace and magnitude of information/data creation will increase dramatically. Human adaptation, mental agility and the ability to continuously create, innovate and iteratively learn very quickly will become strategic differentiators. Speed and quality of iterative learning will be key. I call that high-speed, high-quality learning “Hyper-Learning.”

Hyper-Learning will require Human Excellence. Human Excellence requires both mastery of self and teaming excellence — the ability to have continual high-quality conversations that result in “collective flow” that enables the highest levels of human performance cognitively and emotionally.

The How

Smart technology will become ubiquitous and “table stakes” for staying in business, making the human component the real differentiator. For most people and organizations, transformations will be necessary: A new way of working, a different enabling work environment, a different leadership model with different leadership traitsand the creation of a Human Excellence System will be required.

That Human Excellence System will be designed to drive the human mindsets and the granular human behaviors that are needed for humans to excel at doing the tasks that technology will not be able do well — the higher order thinking critically, creatively and innovatively and high emotional engagement with other human beings. And as importantly, it will be designed to mitigate the two big inhibitors of human excellence: ego and fear, by creating psychological safety and an Idea Meritocracy .

Hyper-Learning requires continuous openness to updating our mental models and is facilitated by the adoption of Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset and the adoption of a NewSmart Mindset.

It is time for the “old ways to die”:

The old ways must be replaced by a humanistic enabling system that liberates people to think and emotionally engage at their highest levels, to have the courage to innovate and create and to thrive in an Idea Meritocracy. And a system that enables continuous human development cognitively and emotionally, which enables high quality conversations that can lead to collective flow that leads to teaming excellence. Sounds a little new age, but I can tell you from experience that it is transformational and it is a journey that does produce human growth and high organizational performance. And JOY at work. It is a different way of working — a different way of behaving at work for many people.

Over the past 17 years, my research focus has been on the HOW of human excellence in the workplace.

This collection of articles shares with you the research findings and my conceptual approach to Human Excellence over the last six years that has iterated and been enhanced through the real-world application of these ideas into various organizations.

If you would have asked me three years ago if I would have thought senior executives of major global companies would want to talk about creating “caring cultures” and the role of “platonic love” in the workplace, I would have said “you are crazy.” Well, I would have been wrong. Because leaders are starting to understand how the highest levels of human performance occur in teams — small teams of people who care about each other, who feel psychologically safe with each other, who believe in the common purpose of their work and who, therefore, are able to achieve Hyper-Learning capabilities in frequent states of collective flow.

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That is the human uniqueness that will differentiate organizations. That is the magic needed for Human Excellence evidenced by continuous Hyper-Learning, resulting in continuous adaptation, innovation and human development. How people talk to each other, how people listen, how people emotionally connect, how people manage their thinking and emotions, and how people collaborate are all examples of the granular daily behavioral focus that will be required in the Smart Machine Age.

Old Way of Working                                           New Way of Working
Command & control                                           Humanistic
Individuals win Teams win
Play cards close to the chest Transparency, candor & courage
Yes, but Yes, and
Highest-ranking person wins Best data-driven idea or argument wins
Listening to confirm Listening to learn 
Advocating/telling Asking questions
Always knowing Being good at not knowing
Internal competition Collaboration
Big "ME" Big We - The Team
Money dominates Meaning & purpose
Hierarchy Distributed power
Leaders Enablers
Tenurocracy Idea Meritocracy
Sameness Diversity
Human machines Human uniqueness
Human resources Human development 
Fear Psychological safety
Financial measurements Behavorial measurements

A new form of business organization, a Hyper-Learning Community, is needed to keep pace with the global complexities brought about by the Smart Machine Age. A community that is more humanistic, people-centric, and systematically designed to enable the highest levels of human cognitive and emotional performance. If you are in a highly competitive environment, that will be a strategic necessity.

For more in-depth exploration, please see the full Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age collection.
About the Expert

Edward D. Hess

Professor Emeritus of Business Administration and Batten Executive-in-Residence Emeritus

Hess is a top authority on organizational and human high performance. His studies focus on growth, innovation and learning cultures, systems and processes, and servant leadership.

Hess has authored 13 books, including The Physics of Business Growth: Mindsets, System and Processes, co-authored by Darden Professor Jeanne Liedtka; Grow to Greatness: Smart Growth for Entrepreneurial BusinessesLearn or Die: Using Science to Build a Leading-Edge Learning Organization and Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age (January 2017), co-authored by Katherine Ludwig. His newest book is Hyper-Learning: How to Adapt at the Speed of Change (September, 2020). He has written more than 160 practitioner articles and 60 Darden cases, and his work has appeared in more than 400 global media publications.

B.S., University of Florida; J.D., University of Virginia; LLM, New York University