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Fortune editor speaks on importance of civility in business

Geoffrey Colvin

(Greenwich Time) – Geoff Colvin, Fortune magazine’s senior editor at large, found himself in an interesting situation a couple of years ago, squaring off against IBM’s super computer Watson in a practice round of Jeopardy at a large conference.

Even though programmers had added a fraction of a second delay into Watson’s timeline for answering questions, to mirror a human’s natural timeframe for the physical movement of buzzing in, Colvin told a crowd of several dozen people gathered at the Ferguson Library in Stamford Tuesday evening that he “got totally beat” by the computer.

“I said, `Let’s confront reality here. Watson is smarter than me. It’s as simple as that,” Colvin said as he delivered a talk titled “Civility in theBusiness World” as part of the Civility in America series, sponsored by Sacred Heart University, the Dilenschneider Group and theHearst Media Group.

That was two years ago. Since then, Colvin noted that Watson has gotten 240 percent faster.

“Things slow down as they get older, except for information technology,” said Colvin, who lives in Fairfield. “It doesn’t slow down. It just keeps getting twice as good, twice as fast every two years or so. So what doubles every two years is all the progress that has been made in the history of computers.”

The result, Colvin said is for the first time in history, technology is destroying jobs quicker than it is creating them, and “no one is safe.”

Now that computers can do high-level tasks once reserved for the intellectual elite and physical jobs, there are fewer ways for humans to set themselves apart from computers, which “don’t get tired and can work 24 hours a day,” Colvin said. But one key way people can make themselves indispensable is through their interpersonal skills, or civility, he said.

“Here’s the challenge: As technology gets better and better, faster and faster, what will humans do better than computers?” he asked. The answer, he said, is “the skills of human interaction, the exclusively human experiences that we are hard-wired to value by our 200,000 years as a species.”

Human attributes like trying to understand what another person is thinking and feeling and responding appropriately, the ability to work in groups, encouraging others to speak and being respectful will be essential in ensuring workers have the ability to continue performing high-value work.

“That’s a description of real civility, and it’s also a description of the skills that will create high value,” Colvin said.

These kinds of attributes sound nice, Colvin said, noting if he were to tick off a list of these traits, people would nod their heads and say “Yes, those are nice things. We certainly like those things.” But they are no longer simply “nice to have,” he argued.

“They are the key to creating economic value,” said Colvin.

“A survey was done recently of large employers around the world asking what they need most in employees. They could answer any way they wanted, and they didn’t say business acumen. It’s nice to have. But it’s not what they most need. What they said was relationship building, working in teams, collaborating, cultural sensitivity, all these interpersonal human abilities.”

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