Automated Executives: Software Moves into People Management
Robots replaced repetitive assembly-line jobs in factories, and recently they’ve expanded into research positions such as paralegals and tax accountants. Some software companies are setting their sights on the C-suite next.
The Institute for the Future, a nonprofit research organization, created a virtual management system it nicknamed “iCEO,” which automates complex work by breaking it up into discrete tasks and assigning those tasks to appropriate divisions. In one experiment, the team programmed iCEO to oversee the preparation of a research report for a client. Developers spent a few hours inputting the requirements, then let iCEO run:
“iCEO routed tasks across 23 people from around the world, including the creation of 60 images and graphs, followed by formatting and preparation. We stood back and watched iCEO execute this project. We rarely needed to intervene, even to check the quality of individual components of the report as they were submitted to iCEO, or spend time hiring staff, because QA and HR were also automated by iCEO.”
The team was impressed with the quality of the report, and its construction took weeks as opposed to the months the team estimated it would take a traditional manager-employee dynamic.
And that was three years ago. Since then, other software companies have created their own versions of automated managers. Web developer B12 uses a program to coordinate its designers, client managers, and copywriters; Gigster uses a similar system to build software and websites; and business services company Konsus has automated workflows that assign jobs to its pool of freelancers.
Automated management is even being used with permanent, collocated teams. Klick, a digital agency of seven hundred people, relies so much on an internal operating system for its administrative processes that it doesn’t have a human resources department.
With so many typical management tasks able to be automated, are bosses going to land on the endangered species list? Not so fast.
A reliance on automation may lead to the danger of a company prioritizing only quantifiable things, such as hours worked and profitability. Of course these aspects are important, but so are activities that are difficult or impossible to measure, such as process improvement and career development (either your own or facilitating somebody else’s). It’s like focusing only on counting lines of code or the number of bugs caught.
There have been many articles, interviews, and blog posts over the last few years asking whether the testing role will soon be obsolete due to AI and test automation. People who think it will generally seem to confuse testing with checking—sure, some yes/no scenarios can be confirmed with test automation, but creative and exploratory testing still require a real person who can think independently.
Similarly, while automated software can handle the clerical aspects of a manager’s job such as tracking billable hours, employee attendance, and workflow stages, there is much more to people management than that—or at least, there should be. Team-building, career development, and innovation still require a human touch.