Artificial Intelligence or A.I. – a good thing for management?

Artificial IntelligenceI spoke at a conference on Artificial Intelligence earlier this year, as a management expert. To be honest, I didn’t know a lot about A.I., other than it involves robots and algorithms. So I did some research. Boy was I surprised. (I also defended a Robot accused of crimes against Humanity’s future – but that’s another story)

Artificial Intelligence will make your life easier!

You might think that Artificial Intelligence has the potential to make managers lives easier, and by inference, improve the working lives of all the people who work for them. And you would be right. A.I. could, potentially, take all the pain out of scheduling, process and task management – a whole lot of mundane, boring stuff that we would be glad to see the back of. After all, managers spend over 50% of their time doing admin tasks of various kinds. Potentially, it could free up time to spend on more exciting stuff like thinking up new products and services, better ways of doing things, and so on. We’d have time to be more collaborative, develop employees so they too enjoy the benefits. It could revolutionise the role of managers! Hang on a minute though. Wasn’t the Internet supposed to do that? I was in my first management role at around the time the Internet arrived, and while it has had a significant impact on my ability to research information, it mostly means that tasks and processes have moved from internal to external e.g. into the cloud.

Artificial Intelligence will make you more creative!

In theory, at least, A.I. could free up managers to do more creative thinking. It could give them time to strategize and develop their leadership skills too. That does sound exciting, doesn’t it! The problem is that most managers wouldn’t know how to do this. Unfortunately we still train managers in various versions of ‘factory’ management ; when we train them at all. Most managers are moderately good at following procedures that have been developed over time. Initiative isn’t required.

Management does need to change

I’ve believed for a long time that management, as we know it, has to change. I wrote a blog a while back that said that management was dead. Perhaps A.I. is the real deal in terms of facilitating that change. It won’t be easy (or pretty). We will have to fundamentally change our perception of what management is – at the coal face. I’m sure that academics won’t have a problem with creating wonderful charts and theories about how this should look. People, or at least those who actually have management training, will learn this and endeavour to apply in real organisations, only to find that the old processes persist. Change is hard after all.

What about the Algorithms though?

Then I have a another concern. A big one. In order to automate the processes, someone will have to write the algorithms. Not just for how the processes work, but also for they should self-improve. Remember, we aren’t talking about ‘real’ intelligence here, but artificial intelligence. Robots aren’t smart; they just appear that way because some clever human designed a clever algorithm. This is absolutely brilliant if you’re talking about a closed system involving machinery. But in automating management processes, we are talking about lots of unpredictable humans. Now I would guess that these algorithms will be written by an academic or a clever IT person, none of whom will be experts in how management actually works on the coal face. This wouldn’t be so bad if the processes were fixed, but they won’t be. The A.I. will create new processes to clarify the old ones, rather as humans do now. The difference is that no-one will know why or quite how the A.I. has inferred that this is necessary.

Technologists think the risk is small

When I discuss this with technology experts, they tell me that the risk is minimised because only small bits of the manager’s jobs will be ‘A.I’d’ at a time. But once we lose direct control of the process of management – it is gone. Or at least until we switch it off (but remember HAL in 2001?)

Maybe I’m being paranoid. I hope so.

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