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
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
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
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.