Courtesy: Paul Writer

As business leaders speak of the “Human Age” and claim that capitalism is being replaced by “talentism” — defined as access to talent as a key resource and differentiator — many companies have embarked on initiatives to “unleash their human potential.” Those are big words and noble ambitions, and naturally they seem worth striving for. But as one of the hosts of a hackathon in San Francisco this weekend, which invites developers, designers, and other creative minds to “reinvent business,” I have been wondering: What is a “human” business, anyway?

You might argue that the notion of a human business is a category error. Organizations are bureaucracies at their core, and it is hard to think of any formalized collective human endeavor, and especially any business, as being free of rules, structures, and processes. After all, these factors are what ultimately makes corporations (and nonprofits alike) reliable and trustworthy, and grants them their authority. Consequently, there appears to be a fundamental chasm between individual human behavior — which is expansive and multifaceted, ranging from the rational to the wildly irrational, sentimental, and unpredictable — and the design of organizations: rational, practical, results oriented, and engineered to perform consistently.

And yet, companies are made up of people who are loving, caring, generous, forgiving, and wildly creative at their best, and incoherent, inconsistent, moody, selfish, arrogant, aggressive–and yes, even violent at their worst (not coincidentally, the corporation, when contextualized as a “person,” has been diagnosed a psychopath in a popular 2004 documentary). Inarguably, every corporation under the sun (well, maybe except for Foxconn’s robot-powered manufacturing lines) is made of and run by humans, and quintessentially based on human relationships. So how can any enterprise not be human?

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