Now is the time to recognize your heroes

Events in Japan continue to grip the world in shock and suspense.  Much more will be written about management and decision-making in response to this crisis, but recently attention was focused on the courageous perseverance and dedication of Tokyo Electric Power’s nuclear plant technicians. We all must feel grateful for them – but why does it take an extreme event to remind us?  These are the same people who worked steadily to maintain safety every day, before a tsunami overwhelmed their facility.

Corporate events often feature a speaker with a remarkable story to tell in an effort to motivate employees.   Or they produce a video extolling some extraordinary accomplishment.  These stories capture our attention, and may inspire us to strive a bit harder, but they also imply that outsized achievements are the only thing worth applauding.  We’re happy to tell stories about those who respond to a crisis – but what about those who make sure that the crisis never happens in the first place?

The reality is that we are much more dependent upon the steady, unsung efforts of the daily grind.  As one Harvard Business Review article put it: “It’s hard to argue with the accepted wisdom—backed by empirical evidence—that a motivated workforce means better corporate performance.”  And knowing that one’s daily contributions are noted and valued is surely motivating.   Companies that really lead their industries acknowledge employees on a regular basis.  They pay attention over the long haul, and look for opportunities to applaud those who keep the office humming, the plant safe, the shipments inspected and the environment protected.

In its statement on the situation in Fukushima, the I.B.E.W  points out that there are 15,000 workers at 42 nuclear plants in the U.S. today.  Let’s hope their employers don’t hesitate to let them know how much their efforts are appreciated.

Elementary Performance

Last week the media buzzed with reactions to a supercomputer’s victory:  IBM’s Watson trounced human opponents solving puzzles on Jeopardy, with only occasional pauses or mistakes.  This provoked all kinds of speculation about the future of human/computer interaction.

One fact overlooked in the discussion was this:  Watson had no consciousness of the audience.  No way of knowing whether anyone was laughing at its answers, cheering with delight or gasping in surprise. How much more difficult would it be to teach a computer to take on an unscripted Q&A session with a live human audience?

That’s a challenge that business leaders face on a regular basis.  Questions come up that can’t easily be answered with a Google search or by matching data in stored documents.  There are fine nuances:  beneath the surface of a question there may be a challenge, a plea, a demand or a hint (the unspoken question is often the most significant).

Those are aspects that speakers should listen for, and need to address if they wish to be effective leaders.  But with more and more Q&A sessions taking place online, with limited face-to-face interaction, the challenge is magnified.  How do you read nuance in a text question?  How do you judge the mood of an invisible audience?  Computers may be capable of analyzing online discussions and social networks, but having data is not the same as having answers.

And would we really want a Watson to explain corporate policy or predict industry trends?  Not likely.  What’s needed is better ways of connecting leaders to their online audiences so they can become attuned to the nuances of online buzz (and online silences) and respond with feeling.