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By Charles Eaton

Like most users of the new iPhone 4S, I’ve been having fun discovering what Siri, the phone’s virtual personal assistant, will say to odd requests. The Apple team has done a great job giving her witty responses. Make a HAL reference, for example, and Siri sighs like she’s heard it a million times before — and she probably has. 

But when I asked Siri if she was “better than a human,” her response was, “No comment.”

Is Siri feeling guilty?

During the recession a lot of companies found new efficiencies using technologies that allowed them to forego rehiring workers when business picked up again. The overall result is that America’s improved economy hasn’t been followed by a commensurate improvement on the jobs front.

That’s helped some companies climb back into the black. But hiring is so slow that some observers wonder if the work human beings have come to depend on is going to be totally replaced by automated counterparts.

There are lots of problems with the “humans are obsolete” scenario, however.

One, there is the feedback-loop problem: the more people we replace with computers, the fewer consumers there are who can afford the goods and services companies sell in the first place.

The other is the fact that companies still need human capacity in key areas of their operations if they are going to be competitive over the long term. Cuts in workforce can make shareholders happy in the short term. But increasing market share, expanding into new markets, rolling out new products, and investing in R&D to develop the next generation of products are the ways a company remains competitive and ensures profits over the course of decades. Technology surely has a place in each of those functions, but each one also takes people — more of the right ones.

An example: A few months ago I had the pleasure of visiting one of our board members at his company, Rackspace Hosting, in San Antonio. Rackspace has consistently grown its staff, revenue and profits over the past several years. There was an audible buzz when I entered Rackspace headquarters – but not a buzz of computer fans and data center cooling units. This was the buzz created by people talking, actively working on solutions and helping customers.

Rackspace’s employees, known in the company culture as “Rackers,” are located in open pods in which teams of engineers and customer service reps work side-by-side delivering their brand of customer service called Fanatical Support.

As a visitor, I couldn’t help but be impressed with the energy created by all these smart and engaged people. On one level, Rackspace is about technology. But they are savvy enough to know that it’s their people and how those people engage customers that will be the company’s competitive advantage.

Here’s why human capital will be essential to America’s success moving forward:

  • Only humans can solve problems. Most end-users come to you because they need a problem solved. Companies whose people can solve customer problems are gold. They will help retain customers even when a competitor lowers prices.
  • Only humans can think creatively. Competition domestically and from abroad is intense, and it’s only going to get stronger. Computers can only react. It takes human beings with creative minds to figure out how to invent business plans and execute them. Need new ideas — fast? Companies that can tap into their own ranks and “crowd-source” their employees will have a huge time-to-market advantage.
  • Only humans have the human touch. Apple may have programmed Siri with something akin to a personality, but talking with Siri is still not the same as dealing with a person. I do almost all of my banking, insurance, and investments with USAA because I know there’s a person I can call for immediate help. Others apparently agree, as USAA consistently tops the lists for great customer service.

Prices are so low now in most sectors that many customers are willing to pay a little bit more for fewer headaches. Helpdesk, customer service, support desk — whatever you call the customer service function — companies that get this part right, keep the business they acquire.

To help companies capitalize on the power of the human worker, the Creating IT Futures Foundation, established in 1998 by CompTIA, has just launched the  IT-Ready Apprentice Program. The program is designed as an antidote for the well-documented technology “skills-gap” which has left a good number of IT jobs unfilled even in a sluggish economy. True to its mission, the program will be focusing on helping those in poverty or at risk of poverty, military veterans and their caregivers, as well as groups under-represented in IT, such as women and minorities.

The program will be available in five locations in the first quarter of 2012: Cincinnati, Houston, Kansas City, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and San Antonio with expansion into additional markets planned for the future.  

Pulling our country out of the economic malaise is going to require companies to be even more ambitious for profits, willing to take advantage of new markets and new opportunities, and investing in a workforce that can get them there. But it’s also going to take a strengthening of service to keep the customers they already have.

And that takes people.

Unlike the gadgets that come and go, good people will never be obsolete.

Charles Eaton is the Executive Director of the Creating IT Futures Foundation established by CompTIA, the IT Industry Association. For more information, visit or contact Charles at If you are interested in becoming involved with the IT-Ready Apprentice Program, please contact Amy Spear at