Robots are replacing managers, too

As work changes, so will management.
As work changes, so will management.
Image: REUTERS/Alex Domanski
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A startup called B12 builds websites with the help of “friendly robots.” Human designers, client managers, and copywriters still do much of the work—but they don’t coordinate it.

That job has been given to a software program called Orchestra.

As its name implies, Orchestra conducts a swarm of workers, most of whom are freelancers, and other “robots” to complete projects. When a client requests website improvements, which B12 sells a la carte, Orchestra generates a new Slack group, identifies team members who are both available and appropriate to complete specific tasks, and hands off work to humans and automated processes in the appropriate order. It constructs a hierarchy of workers who can check and provide feedback on each other’s work.

Automation is often associated with repetitive work such as torquing a bolt or combing through contracts during an audit. Orchestra and other systems like it demonstrate that the management of that work, and even work too complex to fully automate, also involves tasks with high automation potential. According to a McKinsey analysis, 25% of even a CEO’s current job can be handled by robots, and 35% of management tasks can be automated.

The future of work may have become the hot topic, but the future of management may involve an equally drastic change.

Almost a decade of research on how to automate coordination and other managerial tasks has focused on managing crowds of freelancers, which with platforms like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk can be easily recruited from all around the world.

Employees at a company called MobileWorks (which now builds databases of sales leads and is called LeadGenius), for instance, published a paper with researchers at the University of Berkeley in 2012 describing a “dynamic work routing system” that automatically priced tasks—everything from managing a Twitter account to digitizing stacks of business cards—and assigned them to qualified workers. Multiple workers completed the same task to help check for accuracy. If they disagreed, the task was served to other workers and, if they continued to disagree, marked for review by “managers,” workers who had already demonstrated high speed and accuracy. Workers who made a lot of mistakes were assigned to practice tasks until they improved.

At Stanford, a group of researchers (including Daniela Retelny, who is now B12’s director of product) has published papers about how to coordinate crowds to complete projects that involve interdependent tasks, such as prototyping an app. One strategy, called “flash teams,” used software to automatically assemble a team of freelancers and hand tasks between them, like an assembly line. The process effectively turned napkin sketches into functional web applications and recruited users to test them—all within a single day. Another called “flash organizations,” discussed in a paper published earlier this year, placed freelancer teams into a hierarchy and allowed members to suggest changes to the organizational structure as they worked. Those teams completed prototype designs for a card game, an app for use by EMTs, and a client training portal for use by a business services company.

B12 isn’t the only company to incorporate these strategies. A startup called Gigster uses a similar system to build software and websites. Konsus, which offers business services such as data entry and PowerPoint design, has created automated workflows that hand work between its pool of freelancers and automated processes.

What all this means for the job of managing people within a company isn’t necessarily straightforward. “To the extent that we can build systems that aid coordination and awareness for teams performing routine tasks, that seems the most likely to reduce the need for managers,” says Michael Bernstein, a Stanford researcher who is an advisor to B12 and co-authored the papers on flash teams and organizations. “But to the extent that managers are providing informal and evolving coordination support, that will still be useful in my opinion.”

A Bain report published in April suggested that by the end of 2027, most of a company’s activity will be automated or outsourced.”Teams will be self-managed, leading to a vast reduction in the number of traditional managers,” the report’s authors write. “Employees will have no permanent bosses, but will instead have formal mentors who help guide their careers from project to project.”

The report suggests new types of leadership will emerge. Rather than aiming to become a professional manager (“to take expert bricklayers, so to speak, and make them managers of other bricklayers”), top talent would shift to contribute directly to a company’s service or product and communicate directly with each other rather than through managers (they should be”guilds of bricklayers”). In this new company structure, there would be multiple tracks for career advancement. ”Some tracks will recognize and reward the efficient management of routine processes,” they write, “while others, just as highly prized, will value the coaching and development of apprentices as they migrate from one role to another.”

Roger Dickey, the CEO of Gigster, imagines a system that automates this type of career advancement for freelancers based on the quality of work (B12 already has some hierarchy of freelancers, as do LeadGenius and Gigster). “Leaders can oversee as many as 20 projects at a time, offering guidance to their team, recommending bonuses to people who are doing well, coaching, training and jumping in when an issue is escalated,” he wrote in a recent blog post on LinkedIn. “Companies are then able to hire an entire team of freelancers to manage a project, knowing that there is a hierarchical structure in place to support them.”

In any case, if we have truly entered a fourth industrial revolution, as the World Economic Forum recently declared, it follows that work won’t be the only aspect of an organization to see sweeping changes.

“Our philosophy is that anything that can be automated around these workflows will be,” says Nitesh Banta, B12’s co-founder and CEO. “The efficiencies are too great not to automate.”