The Importance of Managing Both People and Robots

In all likelihood, all of us have seen one of , now-you-do ’ magic shows. In this case, it is now I don’t but now I do. To me, one of the most memorable quotes we used in my recent book, Understanding How The Future Unfolds: Using DRIVE to Harness the Power of Today’s Megatrends, which I wrote with Mark Esposito, comes from Estelle Giraudeau, Managing Director of the UK and Scandinavia at ClubMed. She said: “The skill that managers need for tomorrow is not just managing people. They need to be able to manage both people and robots.” This may sound obvious to you. But the full importance of the message did not sink in for me until recently. I wasn’t able to see it. But now I do.

Don’t buy technology – buy solutions

A couple of weeks ago, I had the honour and pleasure of kick-starting Blockchain Adria, the first and, so far, the largest conference on this theme in South East Europe. While I saw a lot of enthusiasm for the blockchain technology, I could not help but keep on relating it back to an important insight in my current work on artificial intelligence (AI), which is that the real value of a piece of technology lies in what it can really do for us – what pressing needs of ours it can fulfil. As my friend and colleague Danny Goh would say, you should not invest in the technology itself (especially one like blockchain, which is still in its nascent stages of development), but you should invest in the problem that it can solve. Again, this sounds like stating the obvious. But many people forget this important point when a technology is hot, such as tulips and the internet in the past, and now the prevailing trend of initial coin offerings.

"The skill that managers need for tomorrow is not just managing people. They need to be able to manage both people and robots.” -- Estelle Giraudeau, Managing Director of the UK and Scandinavia at ClubMed

Something all of us need to know

If the true benefits brought by new technologies stem from solving real problems, then we all need to seriously think about how to integrate human skills with managing machines. And such skills are needed at every level of a business, from senior executives to workers on the factory floor. A recent study projected that, by 2025, there will be 3.5 million manufacturing job openings in the US. However, 2 million of them will go unfilled because there will not be enough skilled workers. And top management and board members cannot sit on their laurels either. In my experience, many of them still refuse to embrace technologies, let alone learn how to make them an integral part of their organisation and business activities. (This is a limited observation perhaps, but I have been told more than a few times that many top managers and board members cannot handle an iPad.)  

Current issues with futureproofing our children

My main concern is always our children. While most teachers are doing a great job, many of the underlying education guidelines are not. Even every year, the learning speed of AI goes up a hundredfold, our education system is still fundamentally based on the factory line format founded 250 years ago. It is designed to train an army of administrators, not a nation of innovators. Subjects are still organised in silos. Indeed, what matters more is not what we learn but how we learn. Many curricula found today, from those used in schools to those in universities, still demand examination as a required form of assessment, when everyone knows that this is among the most inefficient ways to encourage learning. Even with the rapid development of technologies, education policies set and designed by governments, as well as other authorities (such as accreditation bodies), do not really seem to know how to respond. If we just keep on doing the same, over time it will only put the younger generations in more jeopardy.

Romance between rivals

There is little point in debating whether machines will take away all human jobs – they won’t. Humans are not about to be made redundant. Even if machines could take over the individual tasks that people are doing today, as long as we can’t remove the person from the process, we have a different problem in front of us. At the moment, getting people and robots to collaborate, or even communicate, with each other is still difficult. But this doesn’t mean it is unnecessary. It only makes it even more important to think about how to effectively manage people and robots – a vital skill of tomorrow that must be developed today.

Terence Tse

Professor at ESCP Business School and a co-founder and executive director of Nexus FrontierTech, an AI company. He has worked with more than thirty corporate clients and intergovernmental organisations in advisory and training capacities.

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