Executives most likely spend a lot of time thinking about how the internet and automation are changing the nature of employment, but they rarely wonder how technology will have an impact much closer to home: on their own jobs.
For the last several years, we have been studying the forces now shaping the future of work, and wondering whether high-level management could be automated. This inspired us to create prototype software we informally dubbed “iCEO.” As the name suggests, iCEO is a virtual management system that automates complex work by dividing it into small individual tasks. iCEO then assigns these micro-tasks to workers using multiple software platforms, such as oDesk, Uber, and email/text messaging. Basically, the system allows a user to drag-and-drop “virtual assembly lines” into place, and run them from a dashboard.
But could iCEO manage actual work projects for our organization? After a few practice runs, we were ready to find out. For one task, we programmed iCEO to oversee the preparation of a 124-page research report for a prestigious client (a Fortune 50 company). We spent a few hours plugging in the parameters of the project, i.e. structuring the flow of tasks, then hit play. For instance, to create an in-depth assessment of how graphene is produced, iCEO asked workers on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to curate a list of articles on the topic. After duplicates were removed, the list of articles was passed on to a pool of technical analysts from oDesk, who extracted and arranged the articles’ key insights. A cohort of Elance writers then turned these into coherent text, which went to another pool of subject matter experts for review, passing them on to a sequence of oDesk editors, proofreaders, and fact checkers.
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 hiring of oDesk contractors for this project, for example, was itself an oDesk assignment.)
We were amazed by the quality of the end result — and the speed with which it was produced. The research alone for such a paper would typically take several weeks to complete; with iCEO, the research only took three days. And while creating the full report through a traditional management-employee structure would probably require months to complete, iCEO did it in just weeks.
To put the results another way: We asked, “Is it possible to sit down at a laptop, launch iCEO, and ‘code’ the preparation of a project worthy of a Fortune 50 company into existence — without needing anyone to act as the project’s manager?” And somewhat surprisingly, that answer is yes.
It’s easy to imagine this software used in many other industries. We have run pilot programs using iCEO for assignments in sales, quality assurance, and even hiring, but additional applications seem endless. iCEO is sophisticated enough to use Amazon’s Mechanical Turk micro-work platform, for example, which corporations from a wide range of sectors already use. To be sure, iCEO is still a rudimentary program; it will take us a year or two before it’s ready to be released as full-fledged enterprise level software which diverse companies can use. (As a non-profit organization, we’re still thinking through what to do with this technology moving forward.) However, the real magic is that we now have a field-tested “management recipe” for work that can be modified and expanded upon as needed.
In the debate around automation, several voices have argued that management tasks are so creative that they’re unlikely to be automated any time soon. During the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, a similar argument was made about detailed craft work. However, by breaking such work down into discrete steps, automated craftsmanship quickly became possible. Assembly lines transformed the world in 50 years.
We believe modern management today is on the brink of a similar transformation. While management is an information-intensive activity, APIs (or software interfaces), are making it ever easier for computers to effectively route and track work projects. We’re already accustomed to services like Uber and Lyft actively managing the process of coordinating and paying for on-demand transportation. Our iCEO prototype points to a not-too-distant future in which these APIs will not only manage simple processes, but also help conceptualize and oversee an endless variety of projects — functions traditionally performed by management.
Of course, all of this takes place against the backdrop of a larger debate about automation and work. Figures such as Bill Gates and Larry Summers are stepping forward to warn us that digital systems will become a greater disruption to jobs earlier than most people realize. Up until now, however, this conversation has mainly focused on the future of jobs held by blue collar/service workers in the face of continuously improving robotics, and white collar office staffers in the face of outsourcing and productivity software.
Perhaps for that reason, executives tend to assume that their underlings will bear the main brunt of changes to the future of work, while their own positions are immune. They are incorrect. We have chosen to publicize our work with iCEO to highlight the hard reality: It will not be possible to hide in the C-Suite for much longer. The same cost/benefit analyses performed by shareholders against line workers and office managers will soon be applied to executives and their generous salaries.
iCEO illustrates another fact we need to face now: Corporate organizations are themselves a technology, one that has only existed in its current form for around 200 years, a fragment of human history. The corporate structure was created around the tools we had back in the 18th century to maximize scale while minimizing transaction costs. Now that structure is being disrupted by the advent of technologies which can accomplish many (if not most) of the projects we associate with corporations. With traditional organizations no longer necessary to create many things at scale, they are likely to be challenged by a new generation of alternative technologies for getting things done.
Senior executives must wake up to this inevitability and join the conversation on the future of work, which only seems to be taking place at the policy level. We need real solutions that enhance work environments, increase employment opportunities, and provide new kinds of worker flexibility, to the benefit of all. And like the rest of us, executives face the option of helping build those solutions now — or watch as their roles are automated out of existence.
Image and article via Harvard Business Review