AI is coming for the managers

Dec. 11, 2017

Sam Schechner in The Wall Street Journal points out that pioneers of the gig economy have relied on algorithms to distribute tasks among freelancers and self-employed workers. “Now,” he writes, “established companies like Royal Dutch Shell PLC and General Electric Co. are adopting elements of that model for the full-time workforce.” Software, he adds, is taking on management tasks like scheduling and shepherding strategic projects, leading to narrower roles for some managers and displacing others.

He explains that Shell has been testing machine-learning software designed by Catalant Inc. to match workers with projects and will roll out what it calls the Shell Opportunity Hub across the 8,000 employees in its business marketing arm in January.

The tools are part of a shift to apply AI to human resources, he writes, citing Gartner figures that the HR and workforce-management software market has reached $11.5 million this year and will grow 25% by 2020.

“There is evidence computers may be better suited to some managerial tasks than people are,” Schechner writes. “Humans are susceptible to cognitive traps like confirmation bias. People using intuition tend to make poor decisions but rate their performance more highly, according to a 2015 University of New England analysis of psychological studies.” He adds that managers are increasingly asked to deliver data-driven decisions.

He quotes Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a professor of business psychology at University College London, as saying, “What managers do mostly is identify potential, build teams, assign tasks, measure performance, and provide feedback. Generally speaking, humans aren’t very good at these tasks.”

However, Schechner notes, AI’s reliance on historical data for training can make it falter at predicting rare events. He quotes Michael Veale, a researcher in responsible machine learning at University College London, as saying, “What makes a great salesman this year might not make a great salesman next year.”

As for the makers of the software, Schechner quotes Bill Bartow, vice president of global product management at Kronos Inc., as saying, “Our goal here is to optimize managers’ time.” Kronos makes software that evaluates vacation requests. Insiris Ltd. uses machine learning to assign 100 river pilots at a major European port. Nexus A.I. uses its algorithms to determine which employees would work best together on particular projects. Website design startup B12 build a system it calls Orchestra to assemble and manage “flash teams” of fulltime and freelance workers.

Schechner reports that GE has been using Catalant to assign internal projects for its entrepreneur-in-residence program at GE Ventures. He says Sue Siegel, GE’s chief innovation officer, wouldn’t rule out one day working for a machine. He quotes her as saying, “If the robot has personality and a sense of humor and can understand the human condition, “hey, who knows?”

And after a hard day’s work for a robot you can go home to your social robot—see related post “Jibo prompts concerns about ‘the illusion of companionship’.”

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