Rise of the Intelligent Machines

“Smart machines,” aka cognitive computing systems such as IBM’s Watson, robots and other systems incorporating artificial intelligence, could profoundly change the workplace. Researchers at Oxford University, for example, predict that 47 percent of U.S. occupations could be automated within 20 years thanks to smart machines.

Most managers are excited about the prospect of smart machines: 87 percent told Accenture that these smart systems will make them more effective and their work more interesting. About one-third, however, fear that these systems will threaten their job, according to the Accenture study. The study, titled Managers and Machines, Unite!, is based on a survey that queried 1,700 managers in front-line, middle and C-suite levels at organizations in 14 countries on their attitudes and expectations regarding cognitive computing’s impact on their job roles and skills.

The managers said they spend the bulk of their workday on planning and coordinating work (81 percent), followed by problem-solving and handling exceptions (65 percent), monitoring and reporting performance (52 percent) and maintaining routines and standards (51 percent). The study’s authors, Accenture’s David Smith and Bob Thomas, write that intelligent machines can take on much of these tasks, freeing up managers for “judgment work” such as complex thinking and higher-order reasoning.

However, managers in certain industries tend to regard these systems with more trepidation than enthusiasm, largely because of the potential threat to their jobs. Managers in the electronics and high-tech industries are most concerned (50 percent), followed by 49 percent of banking managers, 42 percent of airline managers and 41 percent of retail managers.

The study’s authors urge company leaders to address managers’ fears and concerns, explain to them the benefits of these systems and how they work, and counsel managers on developing the skills that will continue to be important. Indeed, the survey found that managers prioritize skills such as digital and technology skills, creative thinking and experimentation, data analysis and interpretation and strategy development, but place relatively little weight on soft skills such as social networking, people development and collaboration.

“Managers are not entirely sold on the benefit of intelligent machines and it is up to senior executives to address their concerns,” says Thomas. “They need to help their managers not just improve their technology skills but develop greater interpersonal skills to lead the workforce of the future.”

But given the inevitable disruption that smart machines will almost certainly wreak on the workplace (remember those Oxford predictions), one of the skills leaders will undoubtedly need is the ability to be honest with managers (particularly those on the front lines and in middle positions) about the impact this disruption will have upon them. After all, many predictions were made about how technology will free up employees (including those in HR) to focus on “more strategic tasks,” and while that has proven true in many cases, it also led to the elimination of many jobs and not a small amount of pain.