Mark Cushman

Vice President of Organizational Development

Authentic / Producer / Communicator

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My background [is] plain and simple, [I was] an Italian kid living in small-town America. After getting an engineering degree in 1984, I joined a couple of companies and worked in various development engineering positions. Of all things, I found myself as an elected official in local government, eventually leading to spending four years as a village mayor. Those experiences allowed me to see the difference between [the] private sector and public sector. Twenty years [later], I went to Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, where I earned my Master’s [degree] in Public Administration with a focus on Organizational Development and Legal Studies.  Having seen both the technical side, as well as the human side,  the thing that I’ve come to realize is you never know where your career is going to take you. It’s really all about being able to meet people, help people, and build a network that benefits all of us.”

Designing for Growth

Human-driven growth

My passion is to really help people succeed, whether that is in their personal life or in their professional life, to the best of my abilities. [T]he HR profession is one that allows you to do that. Our company, Giotto Enterprises, is a great organization to work for. While there are the statutory issues and policies, and other hard HR components and complexities of the job, all that is really balanced by helping people grow. It’s very, very fulfilling when someone comes to you and says, ‘Hey, Mark, you know, this may not be an HR question, but I need your help with something, give me some advice.’ And that’s what this is all about. It’s bringing solution sets to those complexities and really helping people. … They know their own way. They just need someone to act as a sounding board and to help them develop how they’re going to execute against that path.”

AI-driven growth

We have a very successful registered apprenticeship program … We’re starting to see [AI-enabled] platforms allow the apprentices to engage and interact with simulated workplace environments, watch videos, [and] answer questions about it to prove their competency without ever having to leave the office, or leave the workplace, or leave their families at home to attend evening classes. I’m certainly not advocating doing it 100% via that platform, but I think it rounds it out [the learning experience]. And it also demonstrates to me the flexibility and diversity in their thinking.”

AI vs. Human-driven growth

[There is a] strategic component that requires not only the AI technology, but it also requires the human experience. Is there an area for AI in HR? Absolutely. I think there are those repetitive, mechanical types of tasks and complexities that [AI] could help immensely and relieve some of the burden. Before the term HR came about, it was personnel, then it evolved from personnel to HR, and now it’s evolving again, to titles like VP of People. What’s the common thread? People, person, human. My view is that it’s important to keep “person” in personnel. You [have] got to keep people, and keep the person in this.” Maybe I’m old school, but there’s no substitute for the basic qualities that make us “human.”

Designing for Agency

Human-driven agency

[In terms of agency], the element of trust is the building block for everything that comes thereafter. [A]mbiguity is probably the biggest issue that people encounter, whether it is at home or in the workplace. We tend to be reserved in asking, ‘Would you mind going over that again, I didn’t quite get it.’ If we’re not comfortable doing that, then it’s like finding ourselves on the airplane and the pilot gets on and he says, “Hey, good news is we’re making great time. The bad news is that we’re lost.” I don’t want [the people that I work with] to think that asking that question reduces or diminishes the amount of confidence that I have in them. In fact, it does just the opposite. It tells me that they are practicing the best form of communication: Listening.”

AI-driven agency

[AI should recognize] when to default to a human being. In the organizational development world, we talk about recognizing your strengths and your limits. And that isn’t to underscore or undermine a person’s determination, but it’s to recognize … who am I doing a disservice to if I don’t know my limits? I’m doing a disservice to the other people I’m working with because they  have some expectation[s] of the deliverable. But I’m also doing a disservice to myself because, if there are things that I don’t know, why would I want to spend time doing them only to find out I may have done them wrong? And I think that is one of the tenets that needs to get built into the AI engine… recognizing those limits.”

AI vs. Human-driven agency

It has to be deliberate, how [AI] is developed and how it is deployed. For instance, let me talk about AI-assisted fiber optic networks — there is AI embedded in it to analyze the signal going through the network, measuring it, and managing it. [Based on that measure] we’re saying, OK, what type of trend is happening here? And how do we iterate around that?  It’s allowing us to ask what are my actions today, and what can I draw from that information in order to plan for tomorrow? But we can’t forget that although AI applications are becoming more and more prevalent, we’re not always dealing with another machine. We’re dealing with people who want to communicate with their families as well as other businesses.”

Designing for Belonging

Human-driven belonging

[It’s about] getting out there, making yourself visible, recognizing the fact that communication is more than just talking. It’s about building relationships. It’s about staying in touch and the universal language of showing kindness. So when I see folks [who] maybe can’t hear or understand me, I’ll [give them a thumbs up], and they know what I’m talking about, they are being recognized. They’ll smile and return the gesture, that’s what I call human-driven belonging. You see, there’s nothing like walking by and giving someone [a you’re OK sign]. Or walking into an office and you see the person has a picture of their kid with a baseball bat or their pet Beagle. Those are the things you can act on. AI does not have the capability to do that. And if it does, I’d be willing to bet that it’s not doing so at the level of sincerity it needs to be.”

AI-driven belonging

Now, you’re 400 miles away from me. [H]ere’s what the irony is —  I make my livelihood on this technology, right? Being able to communicate across the miles at the speed of light. [Still,] there’s nothing like seeing people’s gestures, looking at their body language. Recognizing whether they’re nodding, the comfort level, the [sense of] psychological safety … No amount of AI or technology is going to approach that personal relationship that occurs when you’re talking face-to-face. But we’re getting closer. Take for example the remote conversations that take place over Zoom or similar platforms. I could see you. You could see me. You can see me talking with my hands. But most of all, we’re connecting and that’s the beauty of it. That is the beauty of it.”

AI vs. Human-driven belonging

We all want to belong, right? We all want to belong to something bigger. I mean, I’m writing an article right now about engagement and motivation and how we view ourselves. The crux of the article I’m writing right now is to take pride in what you’re doing, regardless of what your title is. The technology, the work that people are doing right now, right as we speak right now, is allowing you and I to talk hundreds of miles away. It’s allowing a doctor who’s in D.C. to operate on someone … in perhaps a war zone, because fiber optics is used for that remote surgery. It is so much more than the [technology] product itself. It is really what the mission and what the vision is and what the goals are.”

How might AI impact our sense of belonging?

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