A Blog by Jonathan Low


May 9, 2016

What Is the Managers Role In A World of Human-Robot Collaboration At Work?

Managers? Why would robotization permit the inefficient resource-suck of management when machines and the algorithms that run them can do everything humans do, only better?

That may be the prevailing nightmare as advances in artificial intelligence, virtual reality and big data appear to render human workers increasingly irrelevant.

But, as the following article explains, the optimal and probable next stage outcome is more likely to require collaboration between humans and machines. Which, in turn, will require a number of managerial skills whose mechanization is not yet evident. This includes a wide number of knowledge-based tasks including the interpretation of data, the application of that wisdom to attain advantageous operational outcomes.

Because this next phase is not just about efficiency, but about productivity not just for the short term, but for the medium and long term as well. Which means possessing the ability to understand the varying - and sometimes conflicting - goals and desires of investors, lenders, workers, suppliers, customers and every other member of the complex ecosystem that is the contemporary organization. JL

Andrew Hill reports in the Financial Times:

Any company that merely substitutes machines for the humans that ran its systems risks sacrificing the knowledge of how those systems work. Managers will have a profound responsibility to dictate the pace of change to avoid succumb(ing) to the temptation to grasp short-term efficiency. Senior executives (will) find themselves co-ordinating a network of people, many of them independent contractors.
Amid the understandable, but often exaggerated, anxiety about the fate of the worker as automation advances, the manager often gets left out.If their destiny is raised, it is increasingly as white-collar victims of the next wave of robot workers, which doomy futurists predict will take on increasingly complex tasks with the help of cognitive computing.
Some of these forecasts will come true. It is not managing machines, however, but managing humans that will continue to pose the main challenge to the executive class.
History has already mapped the trajectory that managers’ jobs could take: upwards, towards more sophisticated tasks and greater responsibility.
The automation of manual jobs in the first industrial revolution laid the groundwork for modern management, spurring demand for supervisors and controllers of the new large-scale factories. At the turn of the last century, Frederick Winslow Taylor, whose push for “scientific management” is rightly criticised for its mechanistic approach, spotted that a move to mass production would “involve new and heavy burdens” for managers.
Similarly, in the second half of the 20th century, computerising work increased demand for people who could use intuition, creativity and abstract reasoning, as David Autor of MIT has pointed out. High-level managerial jobs may survive even as middle-level repetitive roles are automated away.
The first duty of senior managers who want to continue to lead will be to improve their skills for the coming transformation.A second responsibility for a manager is to think about their organisation’s “augmentation strategy”.
The claim of those who believe in a brighter future through automation is that it will lead to “as yet unimagined” roles. By definition, if such jobs cannot be imagined, they will be hard to prepare for. But there are clues.
Richard and Daniel Susskind, who have examined the future of professions such as law, teaching and healthcare, foresee a number of new roles. These include paraprofessionals, supported by machines, providing a human service as, say, nurses or financial advisers.
Middle managers are starting to recognise that they, too, need to change. Some will be able to step up but most will have to develop specialist skills, be they creative or technical, that machines cannot yet master.
Senior executives, meanwhile, may find themselves co-ordinating a network of such people, many of them independent contractors
At the highest level, the role of chief executive may become that of “designer for the organisation”, a term Zhang Ruimin, head of Haier, the Chinese white goods group, uses to describe his future if he succeeds in transforming his company turns into such a network.
Any company that merely substitutes machines for the humans that ran its systems risks sacrificing the knowledge of how those systems work. Managers will have a profound responsibility to help dictate the pace of change for organisations to avoid this outcome, or at least mitigate its impact. Correctly managed the technological transformation could lead to improvements in leadership development. The Susskinds have pointed out that, in professional services, tasks given to juniors were often drudge work. Managers will have to devise better ways of cultivating their successors. They could, for instance, combine targeted apprenticeships with technology — as happens in flight training through the use of simulators and the input of veteran pilots.
Unfortunately, history shows that managers often succumb to the temptation to grasp short-term efficiency. Such short-sightedness would be fatal — and potentially self-destructive. It is their responsibility, according to Ms Kirby, to show more leadership and, instead of chipping away at the human component of organisations, to “imagine what it is their people could do” if machines were able to carry out some of their tasks.
The unpalatable alternative? A rapid decline into a 21st-century version of Taylorism, with managers next on the list for automation.


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