Much has been said about how artificial intelligence (AI) will replace many blue collar and white collar jobs. Could AI also replace many levels of management all the way up to the C-suite?
Artificial Intelligence (AI) and “robotization,” is exerting a slow but continuous degradation on the value and availability of work—in the form of wages and the number of adult workers with full-time jobs. The widespread disappearance of jobs would usher in a social transformation unlike anything we’ve ever experience or imagined. The issue won’t be saving jobs, it will be saving or recasting the concept of work, (which has become a religion in its own right).
Some aspects of the future world of work are already present. In my Psychology Today article, “The End of Jobs As We Have Known Them,” I argue that the jobless future is already here. Futurist Jeremy Rifkin contends we are entirely a new phase in history, one characterized by a steady and inevitable decline of jobs. He says the world of work is being polarized into two forces: One, an information elite that controls the global economy; and the other, a growing number of displaced workers. Job creation is very different today than it has been in the past. The newest industries being created are mostly related to computer software, and telecommunications and similar industries, are the most labor efficient and don’t require many people. Economic historian Robert Skidelsky, author of Keynes: Return of the Master, argues, “sooner or later, we will run out of jobs.” If Skidelsky is right, it raises the question of what will our society look like without universal work or even close to it?
In 2013, Oxford University researchers In a published paper titled: “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible are Jobs to Computerization” C.B. Frey and M.A. Osborne, researchers at Oxford University, created a model that calculates the probability of substituting a worker in a given sector. Frey and Osborne conclude machines may replace 47% of active workers in the future. Of 1,896 prominent scientists, analysts, and engineers questioned in a recent Pew survey on the future of jobs, 48% of them said the AI revolution will be a permanent job killer on a vast scale. The Bank of England has warned that within the coming decades as many as 80 million jobs in the U.S. could be replaced by robots.
This is a dire prediction, but one whose consequences will not fall upon society evenly. A close look at the data reveals a surprising pattern: The jobs performed primarily by women are relatively safe, while those typically performed by men are at risk. For example, men hold 97 percent of the 2.5 million U.S. construction and carpentry jobs. The Oxford study estimates that these male workers stand more than a 70 percent chance of being replaced by robotic workers. By contrast, women hold 93 percent of the registered nurse positions. Their risk of obsolescence is vanishingly small: .009 percent.
In the years ahead, everyone from doctors, lawyers and scientists to journalists, marketers and truck drivers will find themselves working alongside cognitive technologies. Computers are becoming increasingly capable of making decisions, taking complex actions, and performing “knowledge work”–which we can loosely define as producing value by processing information as opposed to physical exertion. So rather than try to find those realms of work that won’t be touched by machines, instead consider what you can bring to your partnership with them. What human capability will remain essential to getting the work done?
An Economist special report, "The Future of Jobs," described how entire professions will be impacted through automation and AI. Accounting and auditing examples of business functions which can increasingly be done by expert AI systems, putting these professions at risk, at least in their current form. Middle management decision making processes based on financials are similarly capable of being driven by AI algorithms.
At a recent Rotterdam School of Management (RSM) Leadership Summit on Big Data, an expert panel briefly discussed the implications of AI advances in terms of management. As an example, airline autopilots were raised as a domain where computer decision making surpasses human decision making. Similarly, with rapid advances in computer driven automobiles, such as Google car, we are now within generational sight of the obsolescence of human drivers.
Which white collar professions may be immune to AI and automation? In essence, professions which help people find and pursue ‘meaning’ and fulfillment will be increasingly necessary. For example, ‘divinity consultants’ may work with people to help connect them to a religious tradition to which they will develop a personal connection. And imagine ‘leisure time advisors’ and ‘experience orchestrators’ – a hypothetical mixture of tourism specialist, hobby advisor, and therapist. Leisure time is increasingly a precious resource for which technology will compete for attention. Those who can manage the connection of personal desires and happiness to new technical possibilities will be in demand. But traditional jobs that are routinized and susceptible to algorithms can be replaced by AI and robots.
How AI Presents Challenges for Traditional Management
AI presents significant challenges for executives and managers, forcing them to reconsider and redefine their own roles. As collaboration among human employees and machines increases, everything from the division of labor, training, performance management and talent development will have to change. Given the value that organizations are increasingly placing on experimentation and collaboration, creative and social intelligence will undoubtedly grow in importance as AI takes on more rules- based responsibilities.
An Accenture study argues the following:
The Accenture study contends the next-generation manager will view intelligent machines as colleagues. While judgment is a distinctly human skill, intelligent machines can accelerate human learning that supports it, assisting in data-driven simulations, scenarios and search and discovery activities. The next-generation manager will need high social intelligence to collaborate effectively in teams and networks—teasing out and bringing together diverse perspectives, insights and experiences to support collective judgment, complex problem- solving and ideation. Future managers will also find ways to use digital technologies to tap into the knowledge and judgment of partners, customers, external stakeholders and role models in other industries.
Sidney Finkelstein, argues “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. We should no longer expect traditional job ladders for managers to move up the ranks, or even retaining the notion that middle managers are the glue that connects workers and ensures goal alignment up and down the hierarchy.”
Finkelstein goes on to contend managerial “rules of thumb” used in the past to guide such decision-making is being replaced by real “big” data based on past behaviors. Add to this the appearance of a large millennial workforce whose orientation is to results and “the idea of being supervised by a middle manager whose job is to supervise, rather than to actually do things, is anathema to young people who come out of university believing they know more than they do.”
A report by MIT published in Sloan Review makes this provocative statement: “An inevitable shift in which a parent-to-child way of looking at the relationship between the manager and his or her team would be questioned and ultimately superseded by an adult-to-adult form. The nexus of this more adult relationship concerns how commitments are made and how information is shared. When technology enables many people to have more information about themselves and others, it’s easier to take a clear and more mature view of the workplace. Self-assessment tools, particularly those that enable people to diagnose what they do and how they do it, can help employees pinpoint their own productivity issues. They have less need for the watchful eyes of a manager.” One could easily imagine that the “the end of management” is in sight — crushed by peer feedback, pushed out by specialist roles, disintermediated by powerful platforms, and exposed by social network analysis.
Would You Accept a Robot As Your Boss?
Although technological limitations are disappearing, social, moral and ethical ones remain. How can you persuade your team to trust artificial intelligence? Or to accept a robot as a member—or even as a manager? If you replace that robot, will morale suffer? Will you be able to express your emotional concerns to your robot manager?
Yet, research has shown giving machines a voice, a body, or even a name can tap into this tendency and make people more comfortable working with them. For instance, we seem to collaborate with robots more effectively when they make “eye contact” with us and we think they’re cuter and more humanoid when they tilt their heads to one side.
Research from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL), show how groups of two humans and one robot worked together in one of three conditions: manual (all tasks allocated by a human); fully autonomous (all tasks allocated by the robot); and semi-autonomous (one human allocates tasks to self, and a robot allocates tasks to other human). The fully autonomous condition proved to be not only the most effective for the task, but also the method preferred by human workers. The workers were more likely to say that the robots 'better understood them" and "improved the efficiency of the team."
A study from the Human-Computer Interaction Lab at the University of Manitoba, suggests that you'll probably obey a robot boss nearly as predictably as you would a human. The researchers found humans willing to take orders from computers, but much less readily than from other humans. Participants were asked to perform a menial task (renaming computer files) for 80 minutes, and a computer named “Nao” was able to exert enough authority to keep 46% of participants on task for the full 80 minutes even as they voiced a desire to quit. Humans were almost twice as likely —86%—to obey another human, in this case an actor in a white lab coat. Still, researchers were struck that “even after trying to avoid the task or engaging in arguments with the robot, participants still (often reluctantly) obeyed its commands. These findings highlight that robots can indeed pressure people to do things they would rather not do.”
Robotic or computer software managers may seem far-fetched, and today few predict when the authority figure in the corner office is an automaton. But in recent years, a surprising array of managerial functions has been turned over to artificial intelligence. Computers are sorting resumes of job seekers for relevant experience and to estimate how long a potential employee is likely to stay. They are mapping email exchanges, phone calls and even impromptu hallway interactions to track workflow and recommend changes. Widely used software is analyzing customer data for algorithms, which in turn is changing when and where workers are deployed.
Wharton management professor Peter Cappelli director of Wharton’s Center for Human Resources. argues robot bosses are no substitute for human bosses. “ It is possible for software to provide sophisticated information (i.e. ‘Here is how you are doing’). But management is still a much more complicated task of making adjustments to the work being performed in order to meet changing demands, diagnosing problems and offering solutions,” Cappelli argues.
In nearly all categories relating to HR from recruitment to performance management, companies participating in the CedarCrestone 2013-2014 HR Systems Survey said they were substantially increasing technology enablement of HR processes. (The survey represented 20 million employees, mostly in the U.S.)
Experts like Cappelli and other management gurus present another argument. One that taps into the trend toward workplace autonomy and independence of workers. Increasingly, jobs are knowledge related and employees are educated. And many of them want more autonomy over their job, particularly Gen Y employees. Cappelli says, “You don’t need a boss, you have to report info to our software system [instead]—they might actually like it.”
So a number of practical and ethical questions remain to be answered regarding the question of replacing managers with robots. The practical ones, including developing sophisticated enough algorithms to deal with a million different scenarios that involve human judgment are already being developed in labs around the world. The ethical question of constant monitoring of employees movements and actions by robots and software programs remains a thorny issue for policy makers. And finally, can robots be made to be so humanoid in features including dealing with emotions to generate trust in employees remains a substantial obstacle?
What Will the Managers Remaining Do in the Age of AI?
If we take the assumption that AI will make many traditional middle management functions obsolete, what will be left? Where should the new generation of managers invest their efforts and attention? Here’s some possibilities:
What About AI Replacing Senior Executives?
Can software substitute for the responsibilities of senior managers in their roles at the top of today’s biggest corporations? In some activities, particularly when it comes to finding answers to problems, software already surpasses even the best managers. Yet, McKinsey’s Rik Kirkland, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee argue senior managers are far from obsolete. As machine learning progresses at a rapid pace, top executives will be called on to create the innovative new organizational forms needed to crowd source the far-flung human talent that’s coming online around the globe. Those executives will have to emphasize their creative abilities, their leadership skills, and their strategic thinking to a much greater degree.
There’s no question that the rapid advances in AI, machine learning, automation and robotics will spell the doom for many blue collar and white collar jobs in the coming years. Middle management will not escape this disruptive trend. And even some aspects of the jobs of senior executives will be affected. Both the nature of the jobs that remain in management and the individuals that occupy them, will need to focus much more on social and creative skills than the traditional technical skills and knowledge that will soon be handled by AI.
Copyright, 2016 by Ray Williams. This article may not be reproduced or published without permission from the author. If you share it, please give author credit and do not remove embedded links.
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To read more about how leaders can use mindfulness practices to transform chaotic workplaces, read my book, Eye of the Storm: How Mindful Leaders Can Transform Chaotic Workplaces.