Will machines replace managers?

How automation will change the job of managers and how to know if your job is under threat.

Lina Vourgidou
Feb 12, 2017 · 5 min read

For the last couple of years, there is a big discussion about how technology is changing the workplace. We all acknowledge the impact that automation already has or will have to a range of various professions. We used to believe that the impact will be limited to physical labor intensive tasks. These types of tasks were indeed the first ones that were automated, however, we have already started seeing the impact on tasks performed by knowledge workers. I believe that next (if not concurrently) will be the task of a manager.

Despite the obvious fact that you cannot be the manager of a department whose tasks are automated, I believe that there is potential for automation on individual tasks managers perform on a daily basis.

There are four common types of managers I am considering on this article.

  1. Operations manager, who manages a typical back office department. Hundreds of data or transactions are processed by a combination of in-house, outsourced and virtual workers.
  2. Creative process manager, who manages knowledge workers who need to use their creativity combined with their knowledge for producing results. In this category fall processes like hardware or software development, web design, marketing etc.
  3. Business development manager, who manages a sales department and is responsible for the business growth within an area of responsibility.
  4. Executive manager, who is responsible for the overall business within an area of responsibility.

Let’s see now what are some common functions these individuals perform to a greater or lesser extent and how it can be impacted by the use of technology.

Monitor productivity and quality of work: Already developed ERM systems and relatively simple algorithms have the ability to track productivity and quality real-time, flag outliers and suggest options for improvement using trained Machine Learning algorithms. In addition, using Natural Language Generation algorithms, one can even generate a simple report explaining graphs and trends. Using these tools, one individual can monitor dozens of workers, slashing the demand for supervisors.

Share expertise and handle escalations: In most of the cases, part of an operations manager’s contribution to the team is to support with more complex cases and share expertise. However, companies can now leverage user-friendly knowledge management systems. In addition, algorithms can detect similarities among similar past cases and offer real-time suggestions. As a result, the need for subject matter experts within teams is being reduced.

Project management and resource allocation: There is an abundance of project management tools available today, reducing the need for a dedicated project manager. In addition to that, there is the movement for self-organized teams, where a team consisted of individuals with varied skill-set decides about resource allocation. They are also collectively responsible for making sure that they deliver within the timelines set by the customers or based on business needs. There is usually an individual responsible for monitoring progress and initiate conversation for any anomalies, but in most of the cases, this is only a small fraction of this individual’s contribution to the team.

Customer relation management: Engaging with customers and promoting the firm’s products, will probably be one of the last functions to be affected by automation. Development of trust based relationships, especially when the stakes are high, will always require human interaction. However, our ability to easier connect with remote markets might reduce the size of the workforce in this business function.

Decision making: Machines can gather and analyze data, but one might argue that we still need humans’ creative thinking to identify patterns and make decisions. I think this holds true and will remain like this to some extent. Although advanced algorithms will be able to provide us with robust analysis and suggestions, there are will still be factors that cannot be easily quantified and processed, such as socioeconomic factors, corporate social responsibility, and moral decisions. However, lots of daily data based decisions will be automated.

Recruitment and hiring: Companies already employ a variety of CV screening algorithms, technical assessments, and behavioral tests, in order to reduce the effort spent on recruitment. Of course, there will always be a need for human interaction in order to ensure cultural fit.

How to know if your managerial job is under threat and how to prevent it?

It is tough to put all different managerial functions under one umbrella. However, I believe that there are few warning signs managers should be wary of:

Managing a team whose tasks could be automated, without sacrificing the quality standards or inserting extra risks. If you are too quick on answering “Machines can’t do the same job at the same quality level”, think twice. People do buy stuff from IKEA although they do acknowledge that hand-made furniture is of better quality.

Hiring the “right” people is easy and average team salary is relatively low. These two conditions in combination probably mean that the team you manage performs relatively simple, non-critical tasks. These types of tasks are ideal candidates for automation.

Most of the manager’s time is spent monitoring performance and generating reports. As discussed above, there is potential for automation when it comes to monitoring outliers and auto-generating relevant reports.

Client interaction and the need for stakeholders management is minimal. This means that there is no need for a manager to represent her team or the department and develop these relationships.

Managers, similarly to all the rest of professionals, need to be aware of these trends and make sure that they stay relevant and they don’t become obsolete. As a first step, they need to develop a strong technical expertise in the domain of their team and understand all the potential technological changes that might affect it. The scope of this shouldn’t be to prevent tasks from being automated. On the contrary, they need to be advocates of automation and support their team’s transition to more value-adding tasks. In most of the cases, these tasks will be more creative and enjoyable, which will help them keep their personnel engaged. Moreover, they need to be outwards looking. Develop strong customer relationships and build strong industry understanding should be at the top of a manager’s agenda. This is how they can ensure that their team adds value to their organization by focusing on the right business problems.

Does all the above mean that there will be no managers in the future workplace? I don’t think this will be the case. There are certain tasks that cannot or shouldn’t be automated. At the core of a people managers’ role is the coaching and mentoring of individuals in their team. They also need to devise and communicate a vision and instil a sense of purpose, in order to achieve high employee engagement levels, which lead to better business outcomes. Also, there will always be decisions where human creativity and intuition will be needed.

For the past 50 years, we have assumed that every team or department needs a manager and that this is a job description by itself. Automation will challenge this assumption in the years to come.

Lina Vourgidou

Written by

Curious about technology & business, passionate feminist & eternal nomad

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