Will your next boss be a robot?

on bots, robots, ai


Artificial intelligence will give us all superpowers. As we've said before on this blog, AI will augment the way we work, supporting our decisions and helping us be more efficient.

From prioritising our tasks and putting information at our fingertips to managing our time, technology will seamlessly mesh with our workflows to the point where we can no longer imagine how life was before.

So what does this mean for managers? If we're part of a team with superpowers, what do we need from a boss? Why would we need to look to another human being to manage and guide our work, or do all the other routine admin that comes with running a team or department?

Sydney Finkelstein, professor of management art the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, said in a post for the BBC: "The sad truth is that middle management is on its way to becoming virtually extinct. While there will always be some people supervising the work of other people, changes in technology, business culture and demographics are all conspiring to upend what has long been standard practice in companies."

Birmingham University has created a physical robot called Betty which can patrol an office monitoring which employees are there as well as keeping an eye on clutter and even greeting visitors. But surely this is a step back, not a step forward?

Machine man management

Outside of the office, in the on-demand economy, Uber has built its business model on a network of drivers managed by an app that connects them with fares. No humans in a central office despatching jobs by radio.

Uber's management layerThe world's largest hedge fund, Bridgewater Associates, is developing intelligent software that will take over the firm's day-to-day management. A team of technologists led by the former head of development of IBM's Watson AI platform will create a system that makes decisions that include hiring and firing human employees.

Recruitment is certainly an area ripe for automation. Algorithms can process job applications and sift CVs, measuring the suitability of candidates against personality and job profiles. The automation of HR functions will also extend to management tasks involving career development and performance monitoring.

Our performance at work can be measured using real data gathered from all that we do - time and motion, team communications, tasks completed, peer feedback, output, and crucially, outcomes. That might sound a little scary, but stop and think about the average staff appraisal system: usually some generic self-assessment questions followed by a rushed meeting with your line manager where you set some woolly goals that you forget about until appraisal time rolls around again next year.

Your pay and performance are then graded within an arbitrary, opaque system with way more cognitive bias than most people would dare admit. Not a great solution.

Data is your friend

Workplace data analytics might offer up a version of the unvarnished truth, but it also removes office politics, bias and personality from the process. It's like actually weighing yourself rather than asking someone if they think you look overweight.

The result is based on fact - nothing personal. Intelligent systems will also be able to identify when you need training and then provide the resources, even accessing your calendar to fit it into your schedule.

This is empowering, if implemented thoughtfully. AI will gives you the appraisal and measurement tools to monitor, tweak and optimise your own performance and take control of your career.

This shift should be self governing; the best people will always move to where they are empowered and have freedom to perform their best work. Companies that cross the line into 'big brother' territory will quickly find their best people leaving. Competitive advantage today is based on a company's ability to innovate and execute, and that requires great talent and superpowered teams.

People first

However, life sometimes doesn't happen in data-shaped ways. For all the speed, help and efficiency AI can bring to our work, we're not yet at the point where machines are able to address uniquely human problems and situations. Personal issues require empathy and there's nothing more frustrating than the response 'Computer says no'.

Computer says no - worse coming from a computer?This is why the prophets of doom haven't triggered outbreaks of office panic. A survey by Accenture, 84 per cent of managers said they thought AI would actually benefit their work while only 34 per cent feared it spelled the end of their jobs. They will spend less time co-ordinating and controlling and more time on the things tech is less good at - strategy and innovation, collaborative problem solving and interpersonal issues.

Artificial intelligence lacks emotional intelligence

Accenture Strategy MD David Smith said: "Intelligent machines will not only augment the decision making abilities of managers by providing them with relevant insight and data, but free them to focus on more strategic tasks. The workforce of the future needs to have more intuition, creativity and emotional intelligence. Intelligent machines cannot provide that but do give managers the time to bring these attributes to the fore and allow them to experiment, innovate and capture new growth opportunities."

The digital enterprise

So, the digital enterprise will be one that requires fewer managers as we, with our superpowers, require less managing. Meanwhile, as mission focused teams become more empowered, with better tools to work together and better data, they will also require less traditional managing. The result will be fewer, better managers, with better data and tools, able to oversee a much larger number of teams. So managers don't face imminent extinction. Rather, those that do survive in the AI-powered workplace will have superpowers too.

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