The home appliances made by Haier defy white-box stereotypes. Washers and dryers are knee-high and portable, as appealing to apartment dwellers as R2-D2. Refrigerators talk—and anticipate your every need. They'll warn you when the milk runs low and before the cheese goes bad. They've got your shopping list down.

Haier has reimagined these once-mundane essentials, thanks to the company's forward-looking culture, organization, and a mindset that serves needs we didn't know we had. The rising China-based company exhibits traits of what D'Amore-McKim professor Nada Sanders envisions as the coming “humachine”–a total fusion of human creativity and technological innovation.

The term humachine, which describes a symbiosis between humans and machines, appeared in one futurist's essay in the 20th century. But Sanders, a Distinguished Professor of Supply Chain Management who studies how companies use technology, has given the word new meaning.

I believe experiential learning is the best way to helping students be ‘robot-proof'—equipped to learn and innovate for life.

Nada Sanders, Distinguished Professor of Supply Chain Management

By stepping inside dozens of large to midsize global companies across industries— including American Airlines, Nike, Lennox, Sas, and Cemex—Sanders has identified key elements of the humachine culture:

  • An entrepreneurial mindset all across the organization
  • A flat hierarchy that shortens the distance between the C-suite and workers, enabling constant communication among leaders, managers, and doers
  • Radical transparency regarding information, roles, and goals
  • Networks of people in and outside the company that shape-shift in real-time, like fishing nets, pulling the right combinations of skills and talents together for any given goal or purpose
  • An embrace of data analytics, focused like a laser beam on serving consumers
  • Continuous learning, top-down and bottom-up

Companies need tech and human talent to evolve together, as one—not in parallel, Sanders says. People create technologies to make jobs more efficient and lives better. Meanwhile, tech must be “human-friendly,” presenting data, for example, in ways users can readily visualize and understand.

To her surprise, Sanders, an expert in business forecasting, finds that humachine-like cultures are rare. Many companies balk at the cost of technology, failing to grasp the cost of doing without it. Many others layer new technologies over old-school processes. The next few years could see “a tsunami of failures,” she predicts, unless companies mutate quickly.

“They're all drowning in data, searching for some insight without stopping to think: What questions should we be asking?” Sanders says. “They're solving short-term problems, not fulfilling a mission. Focused on profits instead of customers.”

In the age of AI, businesses must follow suit or flounder. Sanders points to recent layoffs at Haier, Zappos, and GE of workers who may lack not only certain tech skills, but the requisite flexibility and creativity. Both white collars and blue are at risk.

Like companies, universities too must change or face extinction. Northeastern is leading this evolution with its experience-driven model of education, which nurtures human literacies like critical thinking, creative problem-solving, communication, and teamwork.

“I believe experiential learning is the best way to helping students be ‘robot-proof'—equipped to learn and innovate for life,” Sanders says. To ensure students master what Northeastern faculty call the three essential literacies—human, data, and technological—D'Amore-McKim is itself evolving, she notes.

To students worried about their place in an AI-driven world, Sanders offers hope. She points to an international chess competition that pitted a number of grandmasters, each playing solo, against one another and a team of amateurs. All were aided by powerful computer algorithms of their own choosing.

Guess who won? The amateurs. Their uniquely human strengths, combined, proved impossible to beat.