People ahead of machines

The industrial revolution conditioned us to regard the machine as the central entity in the workplace.

As long as the machine ran, productivity was high. People organized their lives around the machine’s needs. They worked around the clock in shifts so that the machine can run on schedule. They performed only the tasks that the machine itself couldn’t perform. Machines were expensive and unique. Labour was cheap and replaceable. This led to a mindset of machines ahead of people.

This attitude prevailed not just in manufacturing companies, but across industries. At an insurance firm, for instance, the mere difference was that the machine was metaphorical.

21st century digitization is upending this order. The machines of this era are laptops powered by an internet connection. They are cheap, portable and replaceable. It is the people who operate them – developers, designers and product managers – that are rare and expensive.

Today, companies need to put people ahead of machines. The startups (upstarts!) that are organized around this principle are ousting the lumbering leviathans of the previous era.

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