November 23, 2016

In the age of robotics, managers evolve into coaches

Taneli Tikka

Head of Innovation Incubation, Data Driven Businesses, Tieto

Although people will not be needed to do administrative supervisory work (management) in the era of robotics, people will still be called upon to provide leadership. Only people can specify and decide which types of leadership are required in each situation.

In the future, it is likely that the work of senior managers will be concerned with coaching. It will also involve exerting influence in numerous networks. Senior managers will not need to intervene in the management of things, operations and processes – they will be able to focus on the big picture: vision, the goal, the atmosphere and the company's culture and way of working.

In the field of management research, this type of leadership is referred to as transformational leadership, or deep leadership. Above all, transformational leadership is about interaction. It is based on four cornerstones:

  • Appreciation = treating people as individuals
  • Trust = building trust
  • Enthusiasm = combining both; motivation and an inspiring way of uplifting people
  • Shared learning = intellectual stimulation

The organization of the future, built around these principles, will resemble a group of support people and trainers whose primary duty is to support and empower an organization to perform.

The potential for robots to work as coaches has been researched by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon University and the USC Robotics and Autonomous Systems Center, among others. The research results indicate that if robots are made to appear like people, the immediate reaction of humans is disgust.

People also challenge robot coaches, teasing and bullying them rather than taking them seriously. They often consider robots to be cold-hearted, overbearing and socially inept – which is probably correct. If anyone attempted to make a robot coach, it would probably become a type of manager that exerts negative control over others. Machines understand numbers, analysis and calculations of efficiency, and a robot manager that operated purely on the basis of these would risk being a complete control freak.

Appreciation and trust can only arise between people. Only a person can genuinely promise something to another person or inspire someone. Robots cannot appreciate people, nor can they understand the nature or meaning of feelings.

It is not likely that robots could ever become charismatic leaders of organizations. Robots can only do what their machine-learning systems have been programmed to do and it is not possible to program such systems to develop fully as people.

By nature, people are not good at understanding cold, hard logic and related argumentation. We understand human situations and human life, which is why we are naturally good at understanding stories and narrative. For a machine, stories are much more difficult. If a robot is not able to tell stories well, it will also not be able to become a good coach.

While robots may take managerial work; creating work shift lists, allocating resources, supervising and standard reporting etc - it will be left to humans to lead, to negotiate, agree, build and apply influence, build trust, coach and grow others, and build relationships. All of these are traits and areas where even the best AI concepts currently are entirely inept. Areas of these traits can however be assisted: like an AI system assisting in a negotiation, making observations about the opponents predicted response.

When robots become more commonplace, organizational and management models will change, as well as the skills needed in working life, both for managers and for the people being managed. Of course, tools will affect the type of expertise and competence that is needed in the workplace of the future, but the required working skills will also change.

In my opinion, the most important, future-proof working competences are:

  • Interaction and communication (emotional intelligence, empathy, listening)
  • Self-management, prioritization and concentration, managing cognitive load
  • Experimentation, rapid learning and specifying learning goals
  • Entrepreneurship as an attitude and the competence to strive to achieve new things
  • Creativity, seeking alternatives and lateral & divergent thinking

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Read also my other blogs about robotics; "Three steps to superproductivity", "When a machine takes control" and "Robots on duty. Assistant or orchestrator – you decide". 

The blog is part of a report published by Finnish Business and Policy Forum EVA ”Robots to work – what happens in the workplace”. Taneli Tikka wrote chapter "When a machine takes control" for the report, pages 63–86. The report can be downloaded in Finnish on EVA's website.

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