Will we see a time when robots replace managers?
For a bad or absent manager, this might be an excellent example of progress. However, assuming we are talking about good managers, there is no substitute for direct human-to-human, face-to-face interaction. How people communicate varies, and currently, computers are unable to understand all the subtleties and nuances of language. For example, the inflection in our voices, the context of our discussion and the implications of what we are saying based on the vast amount of industry and general knowledge we possess. Think of a situation where a manager is coaching an employee to conquer a challenge. I can’t see a robot demonstrating understanding or delivering the advice in a manner an employee will find useful or inspiring.
I’m also cognisant that some managers might welcome an AI replacement. Many sales managers struggle to balance accurate reporting of their business, coaching their colleagues and also trying to maintain superior customer relations. On top of this, these managers are often judged primarily on how quickly and confidently they deliver on their sales targets. Furthermore, to exacerbate the challenge is the unpleasant truth that managers must also deal with a number of their salespeople who fail to see any shortfalls in their sales cycles.
This is where AI can help.
- Firstly, a University of Southern California (USC) project shows that people are more likely to be honest with an AI chatbot than a human. Chatbots aren’t judgemental, and people feel more inclined to give their personal information to a robot rather than another human.
- Secondly, AI is scalable, and people are not. An AI robot can have multiple simultaneous conversations with many sales reps.
- Thirdly, AI is very good at arithmetic where occasionally, people are not. One study asked 1000 doctors if they were given a test result where the result is 90% accurate, what is the probability their patient has the disease? Hint, the answer is not 90%, and most doctors did not know the answer either.
- Finally, AI learns and does not forget. AI can remember that Sales Person A tends to be cautious when forecasting whereas Sales Rep B is not. It can remember the Challenger Sale methodology from two years ago and to ask the key questions that are required by the executive team.
The technology to deliver this is here today, and people are already thinking about how they can benefit from it. The Accenture survey “The promise of artificial intelligence. Redefining management in the workforce of the future” is a fascinating read and explores in detail the impact AI will have on all levels of management from the C-suite to the front lines.
Some of the highlights include:
- 84% of managers expect intelligent learning systems to make their work more effective and interesting
- 56% of managers believe that intelligent systems will have the strongest impact on administration coordination and control tasks
- Managers want to use AI to augment 10 out of 11 management tasks
- AI will shift focus from coordination and control to judgement work such as strategy and innovation, collaboration, people and community
- 48% of managers do not prioritise interpersonal skills-yet these attributes are essential to success in AI-driven workplaces
I think we can see the pattern that emerges from Accenture’s research. AI will assume much of the time-consuming, labour-intensive tasks from the manager freeing them up to concentrate on strategy, innovation and nurturing customer and employee relations. It will also take the subjectivity out of decisions, which is particularly useful around personnel issues, with the use of data to determine outcomes.
What is interesting and deserves our attention is the revelation that almost half of those surveyed do not recognise the importance of interpersonal skills. This appears a little contradictory given the fact that an Adobe study shows that 68 percent of UK workers prefer face-to-face contact.
Ironically, AI might in the future be able to assist with human interaction. Researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and the Institute of Medical Engineering and Science (IMES) are working on a project to design a type of wearable system that coupled with audio and vital-sign data could serve as a “social-coach” and assist in the communication process. While the initial target for such a system is to help people with anxiety or Asperger’s, who knows how or whom it might serve in the future. “Our work is a step in this direction, suggesting that we may not be that far away from a world where people can have an AI social coach right in their pocket,” says graduate student Tuka Alhanai.
Another question we must ask is, “Are organisations preparing office workers and their managers for the monumental changes that are about to occur?” For many, the answer is a resounding no. Only 19 percent of UK office workers feel they are very equipped to succeed with technology. This means the vast majority do not feel prepared and it is that is perhaps the most concerning issue of AI.
Organisations need to adapt. Those who don’t and don’t prepare their workforce will suffer the consequences.
I hope that managers embrace the entirety of benefits AI brings but in a way that continues to place significant relevance on human interaction. Good AI allows managers to devote more time to nurturing and growing the human relations that matter. Nothing is more rewarding to a manager than coaching an employee to success, or more beneficial to a business than spending more time helping customers.
So, the irony of AI in management is that it frees us from the mundane, so we can be more human.
Skillsoft has invested heavily in researching the way digital transformation is radically reconstructing business and organisations. Take a look at our infographic on How prepared is your organization for Digital Transformation? to discover how Skillsoft’s customers are aligning their business and learning priorities and how Skillsoft can help prepare your organisation.
Matthew Buskell is AVP for Skillsoft, EMEA.