If the future of work is automation, what is the future of management?

English: Jim Tracy, the manager of the Colorad...

English: Jim Tracy, the manager of the Colorado Rockies baseball team. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have been wrestling with this question for a few months. I have been interested in the way automation is changing work and what it means for the future of work. Some of my essays over the past years have looked at the manager and their role. What seems to return is the need for managers as someone to translate the vision from the top to work packages for the staff who deliver the work. The manager also resolves the issues from the from the staff so that the top of the organisation can understand whether its vision is working as intended and what changes if any need to be made.

On the surface, that seems a sound approach where managers will always be needed. They are the “jam in the sandwich”. Will automation make their fate a sticky one? Will the demand for automation redefine what a manager does and what it means to manage? In many ways, I foresee a time when the manager becomes more of a supervisor or coach instead of managing since the decisions they might have made are taken out of the work process by automation and algorithms. I would not suggest that automation and algorithms replace managers, although it will replace those workers who have been labelled managers when their work is really open for automation.

How does automation augment managers?

Instead, I want to look at how automation augments the manager and management. The questions arose after I read this blog post[1] based on this paper.[2] For paper, the author (a PhD student) was embedded in a large grocery distribution centre. In the centre, computers directed employees in their work.

The author wanted to study the following question.

As computers become better at “thinking,” or using algorithms to make decisions — a phenomena which, once networked with systems of memory, is not all that different from human cognition — more and more types of work have the potential to become “computer controlled.” What can that mean for the human beings controlled by computers?

The company used performance data to create incentives. The incentives, like a game, would mask the work’s repetitive, isolating, and physically taxing nature. The worker had to exceed the expected, not minimum, standard to get the reward. The rewards led to a performance league table where staff were ranked on their “running ability”. This was their ability to fulfil orders and exceed the performance targets. The incentives and league table gave the work meaning. In creating incentives and the performance table, management created a virtual social space. In the virtual space, work gained meaning aided by the incentives.[3]

The social meaning workers crave is also what managers need

The essay and paper have insights that can be applied to managers. The case study focused on a large warehouse where there are repetitive tasks, yet, the same logic can apply managers. The need to create incentives and meaning is found at all levels of an organisation. What is different, though, is the way that the work is directed by computers. Even though the digital effects are not new since we have had computer aided design and manufacturing for decades.[4] What is new, though, is how the digital revolution, as exemplified by the paper, will influence managers. Managers will have to adapt to algorithms that advise or direct their work. Moreover, their work will be increasingly modified so that it can be replaced or augmented to fit the digital framework.[5] Manager, in effect, will have to react to computer control in digital arenas that are created for them.

Is the future of management to design work to keep workers engaged?

The future is not a simulated work experience. Work will be more than a virtual computer directed exercise.[6] Instead, what was traditionally understood as management will be reshaped to fit digital control. The computer enhanced manager is what will deliver economies of scales and competitive advantage. However, this is not simply a knowledge worker. What we will see are managers who find their decisions supplemented by algorithms. At the same time, some work will be replaced such as those that are amenable to routine optimisation.[7] Even if we want to reclassify managers, and others, as knowledge that only begs the question. We need to consider two levels to this issue.

Can managers be reduced to an algorithm’s decision tree?

At the first level, the question is how far can work or management be reduced to an algorithmic function. To the extent that it can be reduced, managers may become more of supervisors as fewer problems need to be solved. What exists are problems like office conflict that cannot be solved by an algorithm. If supervisors solve issues like what is this week’s rota and managers solve problems, what is the work priority for highest effectiveness, then computer aided work requires less managers.[8] The term manager will be hollowed out as a descriptive title. As work becomes computer directed, then a manager will be the one who understands, creates, and manage the virtual social spaces that provide meaning for the employees. The follow up question, though, is “Who will provide meaning for the managers?”[9] The problem is not one of infinite regression. The challenge is to find the point at which management re-emerges. Where does the relative autonomy of a knowledge worker begin in a computer aided organisation?

Who will create engagement and meaning for managers?

A manager is not defined by the skills that computers can replace. The goal is to find an advantage from faster decision loops.[10] With the rise of sensors and the Internet of Things, a manager will face increased real time data and ubiquitous performance monitoring and reporting.[11] However, that is not the role of a manager simply for that can be done through a heuristic system. The question is whether a manager is needed. Other commentators have suggested that managers will retain a comparative advantage. The manager, so the argument goes, will provide a unique role in the following areas.

  • Asking questions,
  • Considering exceptions
  • Accepting ambiguity
  • Soft skills.

These areas show that managers provide a personalized service. They are face of the organisation or process, where nuance, emotional intelligence, and personality are prized. The manager translates the organisation’s vision into practice. In a sense, managers will become more human and less robotic as machines and algorithms take care of the pure decisions where algorithm or machine learning is superior. The manager will give the staff the social context, the virtual social space that gives the work meaning and incentives.[12] All of this is true and remains a constant. What is missing is who provides the engagement and social context for managers?

The computer enhanced manager will find they create their own meaning.

When we consider this question, we move to the second level at which the computer enhanced manager will emerge. We can understand that a computer cannot explain a vision. Even though a computer can guide workers to be more efficient, it cannot explain a vision. In this role, the computer enhanced manager will create their own meaning. They are not exempt from the need for someone to create their social context, instead it is that they will be in a position to shape their narrative or their work’s meaning. Even if one argues that managers will not face the repetitive tasks, automation will change what they have to do and how they do it. However, the change is less a difference of degree, manage with a digital accent, than of kind, what managers do will be different. The managers of the past will be more coaches so that fewer managers exist with more employees either supervisors or coaches who work with employees to develop their skills, techniques and productivity. The difference in degree is that the organisation is changing and that change is what will help us understand the future of the manager.[13] As Drucker explained, a manager is understood by being effective within an organisation is getting the right things done. The manager will be required to identify the right things to be done for the staff. Even though repetitive tasks are already identified as the right tasks, it will be the manager who identifies the task to be made repetitive and why. The difference is that the computer aided worker is more efficient. The question is whether the computer aided manager is more effective?

As I mentioned above, the organisation is changing. The change is how Knowledge Management (KM) and Organisational Learning (OL) interact with automaton. If KM and OL are what help the organisation to be more effective by making the manager more effective, then we need to know whether automation can improve KM and OL. Automated KM and OL could create the computer enhanced manager. The difference is that automation, understood as computer aided workers, is what makes a worker more efficient, can it make a manager more effective by automating KM and OL? As George Grant argued eloquently, the computer does not impose on its user the way it works, which leads us to ask whether the way the user applies the computer to work affects the work.

What will automation do for knowledge management and organisational learning?

The computer enhanced manager will rely on KM and OL systems to be effective. The computer will help them find information, explore alternatives, and test possible hypothesis about what is to be done and how best to act. In this role, the manager will find automation makes it easier to share and find knowledge across networks within and outside the organisation. In that way, automation will change the way the manager works. Imagine a manager who could extract information, data, and knowledge from the organisation as quickly and readily as they can through various search engines. We may find that we are moving in beyond the information-organisation. We appear on the cusp of a knowledge organisation where algorithmic learning systems will create the automated or knowledge organisation.

All business philosophies reflect a political philosophy, what does automation reflect?

The challenge is less about what will happen to the frontline worker, as those effects are already upon us, and only a little more about the manager’s future which is what is being revealed. Instead, what has to been addressed is the future of the organisation. It is this change, this disruption, that will define the future of work. At one extreme, the individual will become their own organisation, their own company, enhanced by the various OL and KM systems that make them productive. At the other extreme, the organisation is simply a platform that workers interact with as and when their skills or insights are needed by the individual and the organisation.

The question is how managers and management will navigate these extremes. Can a path be found between them?

[1] http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/businessreview/2016/04/27/how-workers-interact-with-computers-in-an-automated-workspace/?utm_content=buffer55dab&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

[2] http://wes.sagepub.com/content/30/1/135.abstract

[3] What gives work meaning and what gives life meaning in the age of automation will be the defining question for its success. See in particular the conclusion to this article. http://news.mit.edu/2016/event-automation-steal-identity-0408

[4] Consider this article in 1962 that explored the issue. Automation and the Management Process by Thomas L. Whisler and George P. Shultz The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 340, Automation (Mar., 1962), pp. 81-89

Published by: Sage Publications, Inc. in association with the American Academy of Political and Social Science

Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1033702 http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/1033702.pdf?_=1469888731004

[5] https://hbr.org/2015/04/heres-how-managers-can-be-replaced-by-software In this article the authors describe a software programme called iCEO that automates complex work by subdividing into smaller tasks. Even though the article conflates management with project management, the insights are useful. The question then becomes what work cannot be reduced to this level? If some cannot, what is it that makes them immune? The deeper question is whether technology has forced us to think technologically by looking at the world through a lens where everything is broken down into tasks that can be managed by a computer.

[6] Some commentators have suggested that the future of work will be about avoiding boredom. If the work is rendered into repetitive tasks working along pre-set pathways without variation or creativity, then yes it will be boring. See Sloan http://mitsloan.mit.edu/newsroom/articles/in-uncharted-automated-future-will-we-have-jobs-and-will-they-be-boring/  http://news.mit.edu/2016/event-automation-steal-identity-0408 and

[7] http://www.mckinsey.com/global-themes/employment-and-growth/automation-jobs-and-the-future-of-work misses the point and does not consider how managers will be affected.

[8] http://smallbusiness.chron.com/difference-between-managerial-supervisory-experience-36823.html

[9] http://searchcio.techtarget.com/video/One-danger-of-automated-systems-Employees-get-bored Although this article focuses on the frontline worker, it also applies to managers. Unless we assume that a manager’s tasks are non-routine and ones with intrinsic meaning.

[10] http://www.mckinsey.com/global-themes/leadership/manager-and-machine

[11] http://www.information-age.com/technology/information-management/123459665/3-trends-will-impact-information-management-systems See also the issue of big data swamping management with increased amounts of performance data. http://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/if-you-think-big-datas-challenges-are-tough-now/?utm_content=bufferdc5c0&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

[12] http://www.forbes.com/sites/work-in-progress/2012/05/01/know-when-to-manage-and-when-to-coach/#4f1bb7387d04

[13] http://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/technology-and-the-end-of-management/ Lynda Gratton indicates the way management is changing because managers have to work differently. They have to adapt to the new ways of working. Even though her focus is the manager, the unstated issue is that the organisation has changed in response.

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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