But technological innovation can help improve management.
When I stumbled upon Devin Fidler’s recent HBR blog post “Here’s How Managers can be replaced by software” (https://hbr.org/2015/04/heres-how-managers-can-be-replaced-by-software), a loud voice in my head said: “What a nonsense. Here’s one more clueless author contributing to the mass-confusion about the nature and purpose of management.”
I was already turning the page in my Flipboard when something made me go back and actually read the article. And sure enough, what the article celebrates as the iCEO is not much more than an (admittedly clever) algorithm capable of breaking down a relatively simple task (writing a research report) into a well-coordinated series of micro-tasks (data gathering, writing, editing, lay outing and more) which the iCEO then automatically routes to freelance workers via platforms such as oDesk. Add a little bit of automated workflow and voilà, here’s your research report, the production of which has been entirely “managed” by software.
All well, except that this is not management. At best, it is micro-management: the manager knows all the answers (what are the discrete steps required to produce the report) and tells people what to do (assigning micro-tasks and controlling their execution).
The iCEO isolates the mechanical aspects of the task and completely ignores all human elements. What else is software to do? In the real world, of course, there is always a human element, even in relatively simple tasks such as writing a report.
Here’s a few human questions relating to this simple example: would the people working on one of the discrete, iCEO-commissioned tasks be able to do a better job if they actually knew what they were contributing to? What if they knew who else is working on the job and had a chance to interact with them? What if someone along the way had a clever idea which would require changes to the production process? What if the quality of one of the intermediate deliverables did not meet expectations? And of course: people taking jobs on platforms such as oDesk expect feedback in the form of ratings and short comments on the quality of their work. It’s a way to build a reputation and attract more work. Would they work for the iCEO again in the future if such feedback were missing, inaccurate or generic?
Nonetheless I was intrigued by the possibilities and did some more research. I learned that Devin Fidler works for the Institute for the Future (http://www.iftf.org/home) and a few years ago gave this really interesting presentation on “Realigning the Human Organisation” (https://vimeo.com/53985771). In the presentation, he talks about coordination problems and how humans invented the classical hierarchical organisation as a social technology to solve such problems. And about how inadequate this technology is in our modern organisations.
On a side note, one of the very aspects that make hierarchical organisations inadequate for our times is that they are prone to create and reward micro-managers. Micro-managers tend to drive the best talent mad and out of the organisation. I don’t see how replacing them with software is solving that problem – unless people somehow are more tolerant of being micro-managed by a machine instead of a fellow human being. Which I consider unlikely.
Nevertheless, the point that traditional organisations are hopelessly inadequate for today’s word remains valid and my respect for Devin Fidler’s work grew by the minute. My thoughts moved from judgement (“this is nonsense”) to inquiry (“how might this kind of work help create better management?”).
Then I remembered Dov Seidman’s wonderful talk at last year’s Global Peter Drucker Forum, during which he reflected on one of Peter Drucker’s many important observations: that we need to distinguish between doing the next thing right and doing the next right thing. Dov made it very clear that only humans (as opposed to machines or processes) could do that and that we need to make this distinction meaningful again in our organisations. Leadership then becomes a moral business, since the question of “what is the right thing to do” is a moral one.
Richard Straub was hitting a similar note in his thoughtful blog post “The Human Difference” (http://www.druckerforum.org/blog/?p=802):
There are ample signs around us of the limits of rational logic and algorithmic determinism—and always, of the precious, unique capacities of human beings. Howard Gardner has shown that the analytical intelligence is just one in seven. What is most important happens where there is no replicable logic or algorithm. Rather, it occurs where human judgment, intuition, creativity, empathy and values are consciously brought into play. It is the domain of entrepreneurial thinking and innovation, of strategy setting, of collaboration and trust—qualities that cannot be replaced by whatever Singularity-seeking AI-creature the engineers in Silicon Valley might come up with.
So of course, management “as the technology of human accomplishment” (Gary Hamel) cannot be replaced by software. But we will certainly be able to replace many of the mechanical, non-value added tasks related to management – and with it the legions of micro-managers haunting workplaces and tainting the reputation of management all over the planet. By doing so, we help clarifying what the value-added, human essence of management actually is. Or more broadly speaking: help us understand what truly makes us human.
Once again, Peter Drucker was right when in 1967 (!) he said: “We are becoming aware that the major questions regarding technology are not technological, but human questions.”
About the author:
Raymond Hofmann is an independent consultant and coach, dedicated to help senior management design and run better, more human organisations.