handwritten notes can be very powerful

Nineteen words in my father's handwriting, eight of them three letters or less, are on a small tear-off slip of paper on my desk. As often as I try to purge the working surface of what I accumulate and pile and never look at again, this slip of paper remains.

Nineteen words. His handwriting hasn't changed much in the 60 years I've known him, and the word-count in his notes to me over the years, for birthdays, graduations, and other times of moment, has been right about that, 19 words or so. Often a check came enclosed.

We handwrite so little, but how powerful it can be. That a note, a few words, can mean so much says something.

Something we forget.

In the week or so after the vaunted outage of the websites of United Airlines, the New York Stock Exchange, and WSJ.com, we had our own mini-version of an IT failure here in Washington. Amidst a task I considered all-important at that moment--I forget what it was now--a profound sense of helplessness, frustration, and a number of other Kubler-Rossian states of grief and agitation seized complete control of my neurons.

This was unimaginable. How could this happen, at this very instant? Who was to blame? I got up and walked around the office to look at people, expecting to see grimaces of those similarly afflicted, anguished and angst-ridden about having been severed suddenly from the umbilical internet.

Instead, what I saw was something I rarely see here, or hear of: people talking to one another, having left their desks, their offices, their WebEx conference calls. Voices, clusters of individuals in a choreography and energy we seldom witness in our workplaces. Imagine, being forced to have to deal with one another face-to-face, in the moment, unrehearsed, minus the powerpoint.

Our outage didn't last very long. Long enough, though, for me to recall something AV Homes executive VP Carl Mulac told me when he was launching his Joseph Carl Homes company in Phoenix in the pits of the housing depression in April 2009.

Carl Mulac, Executive Vice President, AV Homes

Mulac had already earned his stripes as a division president for Technical Olympic USA Homes, and had come up through the ranks at home building's public academy, NVR, in his early career. What he heard, over and over, is that "this is a people business."

Now, what exactly we mean when we say that is usually two things. Some use the phrase as rhetoric, because it sounds like the right thing to say even if one does not exactly believe it. Others, however, truly mean it, and they act in ways to back that up.

What Mulac decided as he put together the first dozen or so hires for his new and fast-growing enterprise, was that he demanded his team to "walk the talk" when it came to embracing home building as a "people business." He declared one day of every week an "offline" day, banning email and IM and texts, and insisting that people resort to old-school human contact, a face-to-face meeting, a personal telephone call, a physical presence as the way to work for the entire day.

Housing economist, Yale professor, Nobel Laureate, (and many other soubriquets) Robert Shiller a few weeks ago wrote in the New York Times about the dilemma of how schools should try to "future proof" students as they emerge into a workforce that's profoundly changing as technology and automation do work that people used to do. Shiller writes:

Two strains of thought seem to dominate the effort to deal with this problem. The first is that we teachers should define and provide to our students a certain kind of general, flexible, insight-bearing human learning that, we hope, cannot be replaced by computers. The second is that we need to make education more business-oriented, teaching about the real world and enabling a creative entrepreneurial process that, presumably, computers cannot duplicate.

Robots and humans ... can the twain co-exist and thrive?

It's come to this. We are faced with having to re-validate, and re-discover the value of human to human interaction in creating greater value in the economy. We must consult the pages of the Harvard Business Review to learn that managers can not solve all of their problems, nor even gain visibility into all of the problems they may face, by technology alone.

Shiller writes of innate and inimitable capacity among humans: "expert knowledge was broad, deep and practical, allowing the solution of 'uncharted problems.'"

There's "connected," and there's connected, in other words.

Now what if everyday life in our organizations, among our teams, in our interactions both internal and in customer-facing instances contains its share of "uncharted problems?"

We'd suggest--and, may even take our own advice on this--that, as much as we believe that advancing cheap micro-chip and sensor technology has only begun to really show its impact in the business and craft that is home building, that we should continue to act on the reality that it's a people business.

How about instituting an "IT Alert" day once a week, where everybody in your organization works offline, interacts face to face, boldly seizes a moment to talk and listen, makes a phone call, writes a 19-word note? That would be disruptive.