In 1995, Nicholas Negroponte — the founder of MIT’s Media Lab — wrote a book predicting how information, entertainment and interactivity would merge. He called it Being Digital, as accurate a title as you can wish for in an age where we must learn to see, think, and act in response to a world driven by data and powered by algorithms.
Now, a new book urges us to develop a digital mindset. That does not necessarily mean that we all need to master the intricacies of coding, machine learning and robotics, but it does urge a rethink in our approach to collaborating with machines.
In The Digital Mindset: What It Really Takes to Thrive in the Age of Data, Algorithms, and AI, researchers and professors Paul Leonardi and Tsedal Neeley suggest that most people can become digitally savvy if they follow the “30 percent rule” — the minimum threshold that gives us enough digital literacy to understand and take advantage of the digital threads woven into the fabric of our world.
However, if business leaders in particular actually want to be successful they need to go further and develop “digital awareness.”
“Lacking a digital awareness would make it difficult to participate in the digital economy,” says Neeley, a professor of business administration and the senior associate dean of faculty development and research strategy at Harvard. “This also means we don’t have the capability of running organizations that are impacted by digital technology.”
To be successful, business leaders need to understand the basic tenets of coding, programming languages, scripts, algorithms, compiling, and machine language.
“This knowledge is crucial for understanding how digital applications are programmed and how computers are made to execute,” says Leonardi, a professor at the University of California.
For example, how do you collaborate successfully with machines? Perhaps counter intuitively, the authors say we should treat machines as machines and resist the temptation to anthropomorphize them.
“A digital mindset requires a shift in how we think about our relationship to machines,” Engadget pulls from an excerpt from the book. “Even as they become more humanish, we need to think about them as machines— requiring explicit instructions and focused on narrow tasks.
“Advances in AI are moving our interaction with digital tools to more natural-feeling and human-like interactions,” continue Neeley and Leonardi. “What’s called a conversational user interface (UI) gives people the ability to act with digital tools through writing or talking that’s much more the way we interact with other people. Every ‘Hey Siri,’ ‘Hello Alexa,’ and ‘OK Google’ is a conversational UI.
“Interacting successfully with a conversational UI requires a digital mindset that understands we are still some ways away from effective human-like interaction with the technology. Recognizing that an AI agent cannot accurately infer your intentions means that it’s important to spell out each step of the process and be clear about what you want to accomplish.”
A related knowledge set that business leaders (or anyone) should understand is to spot bias in the algorithm. Data is not necessarily truth; it’s information that must be analyzed and challenged, the authors say. Someone lacking a digital mindset can easily be fooled into accepting data as gospel.
Data will never be unbiased, Neeley says, because biased humans gather data, interpret data, and sometimes build models that don’t take into account potential risks and harms from technologies derived from misunderstood or incomplete data.
“A digital mindset requires us to fully understand how to think about data, how to analyze data, and how to ask all of the right questions to ensure that no harms or risks are embedded in them as well,” she says.
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So, we also need to arm ourselves with the ability to challenge data. Leaders need to ask how data was produced, who had access to it, and how well it represents the behavior organizations hope to understand.
Digital leaders must also be in a perpetual state of inventing, reinventing, and transitioning, the authors stress.
“Perhaps most of all, achieving a digital mindset means overcoming a fear of technology,” Neeley says.
“People cannot be afraid of technology. They cannot be afraid of data work. They cannot be afraid of entering an era where they have to learn something new every day. You have to understand how machines learn because otherwise, you won’t be the one leading your organization.”