23 December 2019

Connecting Humans – Using Technology

Dani Johnson
Co-Founder & Principal Analyst


  • There has been a strange dichotomy the past few years between technology and people – in short, a larger fear that robots will take over human jobs to the detriment of humankind
  • Technology is actually advancing the way humans can work – not taking their work, but rather helping them to work smarter.
  • Storytelling and collaboration are two of the ways more connections are being made with technology.

Will Robots Take My Job?

There is this website called “Will Robots Take My Job”. You type in your job function and it uses some solid research to tell you how likely it is that your job will be automated. It’s sorta fun. My job has about a 23% chance of being automated. Largely because it currently relies on things that only humans can do. That’ll likely change.

I happened upon this website last year as a part of a quest to understand what makes humans unique. I had read one too many articles about robots taking over the world and I decided to find out, once and for all, how likely that was.

After scouring social science literature, anthropological journals, psychology texts, and even some religious writings, I came up with a list of four things that make humans unique – or four things that robots can’t do and that other species don’t do: (you can read the full report here)

  1. Envision a different future: Humans can picture a future different than their present, determine steps to make it so, and then execute on those steps.
  2. Tell stories. Humans use stories to communicate information in a way that motivates and inspires and entertains.
  3. Collaborate. While other animals may collaborate to survive, humans collaborate longer than it is beneficial to them personally or critical for survival. Helping others is in our DNA.
  4. Use tools. Humans have perfected the art of using tools. We don’t just use them to shape our physical space; we also use them to shape our mental spaces.

It occurred to me this week that two of these four things – storytelling and collaborating – are directly related to how we connect as human beings. We connect in ways that animals don’t, and robots never will. Connections make us human. And they explain at least some of why we have been so successful as a species.

Leveraging Connection (and Tech) for Learning

L&D functions have understood the importance of connection for decades. Much of the research and literature on adult learning styles focus on learning from each other and leveraging existing knowledge – the connections if you will.

Until recently, much of this work has been done largely in the classroom; connection – particularly storytelling and collaboration – has been associated with face-to-face activities, particularly when it comes to some of the softer, more human skills (e.g., management, communication).

That said, we’re seeing the definition of “face-to-face” expand beyond the classroom and include more than formal training. We’re also seeing organizations understand how to make connections with employees through communication and personalization.


Stories provide context to the data of experience. Through stories, humans cast themselves as main characters, place themselves in predicaments, and learn from their own experiences as well as others’ successes and failures. Understanding the what, the why, and the how, gives employees context and motivates them in ways that increases the responsiveness of the organization.

In order for a story to be effective, a connection needs to be made. Whereas storytelling has existed as long as humans have walked the earth (and probably as long as our antecedents have as well), in recent years, those connections are increasingly being made with the use of technology. We’ve seen a couple of trends:

  • Standalone tools or additions to existing tools focusing on storytelling – video, animations, drip campaigns, micro-curricula, and other content-creation tools – all help L&D professionals to craft stories that have more impact.
  • Easier ways to connect more deeply. We mentioned this briefly in our last article: L&D technologies are moving past the one-way sharing of content and instead are building in true collaboration tools. Whereas employees used to have to be in the same room to take advantage of these deep connections, collaboration spaces, communication tools, structured, and unstructured paths all occur online and with teams spread across the world.
  • AI and data. Our access to data is unprecedented – we know more about our employees than ever before. AI and data make it possible to build personal stories – not generic ones, and not ones built on “personas”. We can connect with our employees on their level and meet their needs in new and more effective ways.


Thomas Suddendorf, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Queensland in Australia, says that we have a fundamental urge to link our minds together. “This allows us to take advantage of others’ experiences, reflections, and imaginings to prudently guide our own behavior.”

We are wired to help. Ask any two-year-old that follows you around picking up things you dropped. It’s innate, and it’s incredibly human.

Helping others manifests itself in some of the ways we utilize technology. A good example of this is Wikipedia. It exists because thoughtful people with knowledge want to share it – and because thoughtful people who value that knowledge fund it. Another example is GitHub – where programmers can share code with each other. Collaboration in this case has saved countless hours and accelerated development by allowing one programmer to build on top of – instead of recreating – code.

The L&D function – and the solution providers that support it – have also made some progress when it comes to helping individuals collaborate – to help each other learn – using technology. A few interesting things we’ve seen:

  • The rise of the expertise directory. Several vendors (and some enterprising homegrown solutions) are making knowledge and skills more transparent in the organization. Some systems allow users to self-select knowledge and skills; others rely on AI and latent data to “guess” which skills an individual may have; but they all help employees collaborate by guiding them to who is likely able to help.
  • Leaders as teachers – virtually. When I was at Deloitte, I was always impressed with their ability to leverage leaders as teachers in the classroom. Tech, however, allows us to leverage leaders as teachers EVERYWHERE. Organizations can take advantage of expertise no matter where in the world it sits through new technologies built particularly for the purpose.
  • Project marketplaces. We’re seeing more organizations create opportunities for learning through the work itself. Project marketplaces allow employees to sign up for short projects that will help them to develop critical skills. The marketplace is a great example of collaboration: individuals willing to help and to learn while doing it, and leaders offering opportunities for that growth, along with some coaching and mentoring.

Likely these are not entirely new ideas – we have been talking about them for about a year. But the fact that these technologies are built to connect us, and that those connections appeal to our very humanness, and that organizations are more effective when they focus on the things that makes us human gives me hope for us. And for the robots. And for us being able to live harmoniously with them.

Dani Johnson

Dani is Co-founder and Principal Analyst for RedThread Research. She has spent the majority of her career writing about, conducting research in, and consulting on human capital practices and technology. Her ideas can be found in publications such as Wall Street Journal, CLO Magazine, HR Magazine, and Employment Relations. Dani holds an MBA and an MS and BS in Mechanical Engineering from BYU.


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