man outdoors on a brick walkway looking to the right
Some functions that have been traditionally carried out by middle management can be taken over by augmented intelligence. PHOTO: Erich Ferdinand

Many people worry about the impact of artificial intelligence on the world of work. They fear robots could replace workers.

But what if this perspective is wrong? 

What if it's actually managers who are at greatest risk of replacement, leaving frontline staff members to supervise themselves?

Disruptive Augmented Intelligence

Artificial intelligence — the kind of machines that genuinely learn — are not yet a reality in the workplace. But augmented intelligence, the use of computing power to surface patterns in data without humans having to look at it, is already here.

There are many ways to use augmented intelligence. But one important way not yet widely understood will be to reduce the need for middle management.

It will be difficult for robots to replace people in customer-facing roles. From the doctor with the great bedside manner to the teacher who loves her students and the sales rep who engages with the problems his prospective customers are trying to solve, human expertise, engagement and creativity are vital.

But some of the support and supervision functions that have been traditionally carried out by middle management can easily be taken over by augmented intelligence.

The Evolution of Management

Traditional management grew up when staff mainly worked in the same place, under the eye of supervisors. In the digital workplace, people work in many different settings, joined by technology.

In this context, augmented intelligence can enable workers to supervise themselves. This could be at a simple level, nagging people to complete important chores like completing time sheets and expenses. Or it can be at a more organizational level, helping people to organize and plan their work.

A teacher might be prompted to tick milestones linked to exam syllabuses. A doctor could have a suggested best-practice care plan for each patient. More prosaically, a medical practice manager could be prompted to order more printer ink or paper towels before they run out.

Through the visibility of each person’s contribution, in a digital workplace where team members are assisted by augmented intelligence, they can be held accountable for what they do, in a constructive way.

The teacher who doesn’t tick the boxes on the syllabus will be held responsible if his or her charges enter the exam hall unprepared. The doctor who rejects the best practice care plan in favor of reflexology will know that he or she may have to explain those decisions at a later date.

At a lower level, the practice manager who ignores an augmented intelligence prompt to order more paper towels will be expected to explain this if they run out.

Better, More Inspiring Management

But the evidence shows that as long as people are given control of things that can affect their success at work: budgets, resource plans etcetera, having more control is likely to increases their job satisfaction.

Sure there will still be a need for managers — but managers who very much add value, either at the executive level by harnessing the power of augmented intelligence to make better decisions more quickly; or at the level of leading and inspiring teams to greater success.

Bringing on board the right forms of augmented intelligence means autonomy and decision-making can be pushed downwards in an organization.

Individuals can be trusted to take the right decisions in the situations they are dealing with, within structured processes that give transparency. If anything unusual arises, they can easily ask for help, and equally, they know that their contribution will be visible.

More Self-Directed Actions, Accountability

Because of this visibility, people throughout the organization are able to take charge of their own piece of the action, being proactive, making decisions and then being held accountable for them.

This kind of augmented intelligence is already becoming a reality in many workplaces. Salesforce Einstein makes it easier for companies to operate consistently across different times and places and to offer staff the support they need to do their jobs to the best of their abilities, reducing the need for back office support and hands-on supervision.

Augmented intelligence provides tools to change the way companies manage their staff, enabling workers to self-supervise in a structured environment. It is likely to foreground the talents of staff in customer-facing roles and reduce the role of managers.

But getting the most out of this disruptive technology will require smart people as well as smart apps. Businesses that already have empowered, engaged and autonomous workforces are likely to get the best value from augmented intelligence in the digital workplace in the future.