03 December 2018

Artificial intelligence AI could make managers better than ever, concluded a CMI roundtable

CMI Insights

Earlier this year, CMI held a roundtable for a group of senior Companions. The agenda was how artificial intelligence was redefining the workplace. And the discussion took us right to the edge of management practice.

Any conversation about artificial intelligence (AI) moves quickly into the job-shredding potential of wide-scale automation. But there is a different, fascinating upside, where management is elevated to a new sphere of influence.

“Imagine a workplace where mundane, repetitive tasks are gone, where creativity and collaboration and leadership are the focus,” said Maggie Buggie, senior vice-president at the software giant SAP.

“That is what we could be freed up for and to deliver. At present, managers spend their days in process-related meetings, providing status updates. They spend half their time performing admin tasks. There is little time for understanding the context, and no time for reflection. With AI more integrated into workflow, managers will be able to redirect their attention to higher-value priorities – how to move things forward, motivation, development and making sure the team is valued and appreciated.”

It is a bracing prospect, and now’s the time to have a deeper discussion about it. Digital technology provides us with huge amounts of additional data, and the power to interpret it. We have unparalleled levels of statistical information for our decision-making. This is a prime source of competitive advantage – the means by which a company will be able to survive. If your enterprise is to survive in an age defined by Amazon and Google, then that will depend on gathering, interpreting and acting on data.

SAP’s Buggie described the emergence of a new breed of leaders who are “data-savvy and comfortable with making decisions on data points”. She called them the “super-managers of the future”.

HOW TO BE A SUPER-MANAGER

These super-managers have both deep engineering skills and profound emotional and social intelligence, she said. They are masters of the ‘both/and’, not the ‘either/or’, able to apply insights from complex data to everyday business operations and situations.

There are not many of these super-managers around. But they have the potential to redefine what we mean by ‘effective leadership’. “In an ideal world, [super-managers] will be the ones who can instinctively and intrinsically build the bridges between AI and other enabled data systems with their teams,” said Julian Birkinshaw, professor of strategy and entrepreneurship and deputy dean at London Business School.

Although he didn’t use the term ‘super-manager’, he sees management in this new era as a spectrum, with algorithms and data science on one side and rules of thumb based on experience on the other.

“The trick,” he said, “is to get smarter at making the right link between those two models: when to use data and when to use your gut.” Some decisions will be algorithm-based, using A/B testing and precise data science. With these, we can know which is the right decision because we have the data. But there are other decisions where no amount of data can possibly help, such as: ‘Should we move the business into this sector?’ “That goes beyond any decision that data can tell you and clearly requires judgement, gut and a fair degree of courage,” said Birkinshaw.

“Super-managers have the ability to focus on what really matters, because they have a clear sense of their goal – what will make their boat go faster – and can make decisions based around this.” Suzanne Ross, a lecturer at Nottingham Trent University specialising in leadership behaviour, summed up these abilities as “critical thinking and emotional intelligence”.

THE CHANGE IS COMING

Right now, most middle managers make decisions based on gut instinct and experience. “In the intelligent workplace, you’ll have managers who are open to multiple different data sources – AI, people, connections, market intelligence, customer data points,” said SAP’s Buggie. And the primary agents are the super-managers, “individuals who are able to work at this confluence of the intelligent application of edge technologies with the real emotional and social application of human connections”, she said.

“Judgement will be paramount in super-managers. They will understand the data and the human impact. They will combine digital aptitude with creative thinking, and the ability and the motivation to analyse data.”

Traditionally, managers have been focused on operational efficiency and cost-cutting, said Buggie. This will remain important. “But super-managers also need to understand the role of creativity and growth. As operations become more efficient, companies will constantly be searching for top-line growth.”

Read more: management in a post-AI world

CMI members are invited to regular networking events where you can share your own views on future management developments

Image: Shutterstock


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