Insights by: Edward D. Hess 


We are on the leading edge of a technology tsunami — the convergence of several technological advancements, including artificial intelligence, the “internet of things,” virtual and augmented reality, nanotechnology, etc. — that will transform how we live and how we work. The Smart Machine Age will present challenges and opportunities for every person and every organization. A big challenge will be the need for human beings to adapt and iteratively learn at the pace of technological change.

The science is clear. We humans tend to be reflexive thinkers who seek confirmation of our mental models of how our world works. We reflexively are cognitively blind and confirmation biased, and we tend to make broad generalizations based on a few data points. And we generally do not seek out disconfirming data to test our views. If that is not enough, then add in our emotional defensiveness when our views are challenged because our egos identify with what we think we know.


A new level of human performance will be needed in the Smart Machine Age. We humans will be challenged to think and relate at our highest levels much more often because the technological pace and magnitude of information/data creation will increase dramatically. Human adaptation, mental agility and the ability to continuously create, innovate and iteratively learn very quickly will become strategic differentiators. Speed and quality of iterative learning will be key. I call that high-speed, high-quality learning “Hyper-Learning.”

Hyper-Learning will require Human Excellence. Human Excellence requires both mastery of self and teaming excellence— the ability to have continual high-quality conversations that result in “collective flow” that enables the highest levels of human performance cognitively and emotionally.


Smart technology will become ubiquitous and “table stakes” for staying in business, making the human component the real differentiator. For most people and organizations, transformations will be necessary: A new way of workinga different enabling work environmenta different leadership model with different leadership traits, and the creation of a Human Excellence System will be required.

That Human Excellence System will be designed to drive the human mindsets and the granular human behaviors that are needed for humans to excel at doing the tasks that technology will not be able do well — the higher order thinking critically, creatively and innovatively and high emotional engagement with other human beings. And as importantly, it will be designed to mitigate the two big inhibitors of human excellence: ego and fear, by creating psychological safety and an Idea Meritocracy .

Hyper-Learning requires continuous openness to updating our mental models and is facilitated by the adoption of Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset and the adoption of a NewSmart Mindset.

It is time for the “old ways to die”:

The old ways must be replaced by a humanistic enabling system that liberates people to think and emotionally engage at their highest levels, to have the courage to innovate and create and to thrive in an Idea Meritocracy. And a system that enables continuous human development cognitively and emotionally, which enables high quality conversations that can lead to collective flow that leads to teaming excellence. Sounds a little new age, but I can tell you from experience that it is transformational and it is a journey that does produce human growth and high organizational performance. And JOY at work. It is a different way of working — a different way of behaving at work for many people.

Over the past 17 years, my research focus has been on the HOW of human excellence in the workplace.

This collection of articles shares with you the research findings and my conceptual approach to Human Excellence over the last six years that has iterated and been enhanced through the real-world application of these ideas into various organizations.

If you would have asked me three years ago if I would have thought senior executives of major global companies would want to talk about creating “caring cultures” and the role of “platonic love” in the workplace, I would have said “you are crazy.” Well, I would have been wrong. Because leaders are starting to understand how the highest levels of human performance occur in teams — small teams of people who care about each other, who feel psychologically safe with each other, who believe in the common purpose of their work and who, therefore, are able to achieve Hyper-Learning capabilities in frequent states of collective flow.

That is the human uniqueness that will differentiate organizations. That is the magic needed for Human Excellence evidenced by continuous Hyper-Learning, resulting in continuous adaptation, innovation and human development. How people talk to each other, how people listen, how people emotionally connect, how people manage their thinking and emotions, and how people collaborate are all examples of the granular daily behavioral focus that will be required in the Smart Machine Age.

Old Way of Working                                          New Way of Working
Command & control                                          Humanistic
Individuals winTeams win
Play cards close to the chestTransparency, candor & courage
Yes, butYes, and
Highest-ranking person winsBest data-driven idea or argument wins
Listening to confirmListening to learn 
Advocating/tellingAsking questions
Always knowingBeing good at not knowing
Internal competitionCollaboration
Big "ME"Big We - The Team
Money dominatesMeaning & purpose
HierarchyDistributed power
TenurocracyIdea Meritocracy
Human machinesHuman uniqueness
Human resourcesHuman development 
FearPsychological safety
Financial measurementsBehavorial measurements

A new form of business organization, a Hyper-Learning Community, is needed to keep pace with the global complexities brought about by the Smart Machine Age. A community that is more humanistic, people-centric, and systematically designed to enable the highest levels of human cognitive and emotional performance. If you are in a highly competitive environment, that will be a strategic necessity.


About the University of Virginia Darden School of Business

The University of Virginia Darden School of Business delivers the world’s best business education experience to prepare entrepreneurial, global and responsible leaders through its MBA, Ph.D., MSBA and Executive Education programs. Darden’s top-ranked faculty is renowned for teaching excellence and advances practical business knowledge through research. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.