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Organizations have struggled in a variety of ways with going digital over the past few decades. But what of yourself? Have you gone digital? Have you developed a mindset appropriate for an age in which your colleagues, increasingly, are algorithms, apps and other advanced technology?

“We are all digital workers, whether we are a software engineer in Silicon Valley, a marketer of a Hollywood ad agency, an entrepreneur in the food industry, or an instructor of any academic subject whatsoever,” Paul Leonardi, a professor of technology management at the University of California, and Tsedal Neeley, a professor of organizational behaviour at Harvard Business School, write in The Digital Mindset: What It Really Takes to Thrive in the Age of Data, Algorithms, and AI.

That means learning to think differently, not just improving your technology skills. They view digital as the interaction between data and technology. A digital mindset comprises the attitudes and behaviours required to make sense of and take advantage of the opportunities offered by data and technology.

They stress that you don’t need to master the intricacies of programming or building your own algorithms. But you need to know enough about such digital tools to work with and alongside them, understanding the operations occurring behind the technologies. They suggest you need about 30-per-cent fluency in a handful of technical topics such as analytics and probability theory to develop your digital mindset – what they call the 30-per-cent rule. It’s based on the notion that a non-native speaker needs a vocabulary of about 12,000 English words to master the language, but, to communicate and interact effectively with other people, about 3,500 to 4,000 words will suffice.

A first step in that journey is to learn how to interact with your new digital teammates. It’s not the same as dealing with human beings – an obvious point, but think of the last time you were fuming about errant technology, as if it could change its ways. “Because they mimic the functionality of humans, people tend to treat them like humans,” the authors note, an observation supported by experiments in which people who knew they were interacting with machines rather than people made that mistake.

You also need to be humble. You have to accept that in many cases machines are better than humans at making certain predications and doing specific tasks. In medicine, for example, an artificial intelligence application dramatically reduced the number of overlooked lung cancers on chest radiographs.

You need to think about the algorithms and technologies – whether it’s an AI booking agent for a meeting or travel or those radiograph detections – as machines that require explicit instructions and should be focused on narrow tasks. Don’t try to be human with them. Losing your cool doesn’t work, but neither does being polite. If you are communicating with a manifestation of AI, don’t expect it to read between the lines; spell things out in great detail, being clear on what you want to accomplish.

Trusting an Ai-based agent can be safe, but again it’s not the same as trusting a person. You need to be aware of the task it is being asked to perform. You need enough transparency – and that 30-per-cent knowledge of technology – to be able to judge how confident you can be in the situation. And in return, the authors stress that you need to be transparent, giving the process the opportunity to learn from its interaction with you. Finally, be wary: As those AI agents and robots become better, acting more like humans, you will tend to treat them more like humans – and that’s when trouble occurs.

Quick hits

  • Behavioural expert Dan Ariely warns against flat-out asking someone to be your mentor. Initially, keep your request small – a 15-minute conversation with a specific objective – because people are reluctant to make undefined commitments.
  • Employees get the most done on Monday and Tuesday, whether at home or in the office, a survey by business consulting firm Robert Half shows. When asked what most impedes their productivity, the top response was unnecessary calls and meetings (34 per cent), followed by conversations with colleagues (25 per cent).
  • In job interviews, executive recruiter Gerald Walsh reminds you to, at the end, when asked if you have any questions, check whether you have answered all the interviewer’s questions and whether there is anything else you can provide to help them make their decision.
  • Productivity gurus often suggest starting the day with your most important or challenging task. But consultant Wally Bock takes a different tack, saying that if you’re a supervisor you might prefer to get paperwork out of the way first so you can concentrate on your team’s work for the day.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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