You Can't Automate Managers, No Matter How Good the Tech
In early 2020, Gartner predicted that emerging technologies built using AI would replace almost 69% of managers' workloads within a few short years.
“The role of manager will see a complete overhaul in the next four years,” said Gartner research VP Helen Poitevin in a statement at the time.
The prediction was that AI would automate time-intensive tasks like filling forms, updating information and approving workflows, thanks to what Statista defines as AI's ability to mimic the competencies of the human mind.
Three years later, AI is still not quite there, despite the rush to emerging technologies brought on by new work models.
AI in the Workplace Today
Even with something as technologically sophisticated as ChatGPT, AI has severe limitations.
Yet, when asked whether Gartner’s estimations were realistic, Andrius Benokraitis, senior manager for technical marketing at Ansible by Red Hat, said he believes they are — for those willing to embrace the technology.
Benokraitis said the most frequent reason people aren’t automating tasks isn’t because of the lack of available tools but because of the mindset. “It is absolutely feasible," he said, "but old habits die hard."
The need to accept and trust automation to work on their behalf is a big hold up in the integration of AI as a productivity booster in the workplace. For instance, he said, some managers may hesitate to start on an automation journey because they don’t know where to begin or which processes and workflows would be most beneficial to automate first.
“Effective automation stems from a strategic vision so you can evaluate what will have the greatest impact in the long-run," he said. "So, automation can absolutely help solve common issues that managers face, but only if there's a comprehensive plan in place.”
Organizations also have to define what a manager does or doesn’t do. There are many intangibles that managers have that are invaluable to business, and these intangibles are something that a successful organization will always need.
“Effective managers are leaders in an organization, which is not a trait that technology or automation can provide," Benokraitis said. “What automation cannot do is make decisions without context or provide the intangibles of a true leader at work," he said.
To reap AI's rewards, organizations also have to solve the abundance of existing processes and red tape to enable automation to properly fit into the larger organizational ecosystem.
If automation has any chance to succeed as the next frontier in the enterprise, managers must make automation part of their holistic strategy for the short and long-term objectives. Because while automation may take some of the more mundane tasks off the desk of managers, deciding what will and won’t be automated is up to managers.
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The Pace of Digital Transformation
Automation can take on many forms, and it already impacts our day-to-day.
Kayla Lebovits, founder and CEO of workplace engagement provider Bundle, said Office 365 and Google both have automation built in, and people don’t even realize it’s happening.
The technology is here, though Lebovits doesn’t believe that Gartner’s 2024 timeline for automating that amount of managerial tasks is possible.
“I don’t think the timeline is feasible given the slow pace of digital transformation in the U.S.,” she said. “Companies are generally slow to adopt new technologies, even if they are innovative and impactful.”
There are many reasons for this, from cost of implementation to lack of understanding, to worries of putting people out of jobs. But for AI to break through, companies need to be more willing to experiment with new workplace technologies based on the needs of their workforce.
There is also resistance from the very people that Gartner believes will gain from the technology: managers. Automation can already solve basic management tasks and save employees time, but, Lebovits said, we still need a human involved to account for algorithm bias and check results.
Another challenge with the short timeline, Lebovits said, is that many of today's managers don’t have a digital growth mindset or desire to experiment with new and unfamiliar technologies. But Gen Z employees will be entering management roles soon, she said, and this is likely to change the state of play.
“By the start of the next decade," she said, “the workplace will most likely experience an exponential adoption of these technologies, especially as AI and automation become more integrated into our everyday lives outside of work.”
With Gen Z managers — notably those born after 1996 — it is likely that we will see a significant increase in automation across all areas of business, driven by a desire to increase efficiency and productivity as well as reduce errors and redundancies.
This rise of automation is also likely to see a new kind of manager emerge.
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Lebovits said those new managers are expected to have high emotional IQs and a people-first approach. Successful managers of the future, she said, will have the capability to help, enable, coach and empower their people to perform at their best.
“Of course, they will still need to set goals and visions for teams, have the necessary business savvy to manage cross-organizational issues and be adaptable to change,” she said.
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Understanding Your Automation
Automation can bring efficiency to business processes, which results in more throughput with less people.
But Jason Burian, VP of product at KnowledgeLake, said it's not as simple as implementing process automation software or RPA tools. If organizations move aggressively to adopt automation without really understanding all of the steps of a workflow and how things get done, and managing those tasks and processes in an effective way, any gains from automation will be undermined, he said.
Burian said it's important to know where the pain points are in the process and understand what can be automated and what needs human hands. In other words, process-mapping first, technology second — and the best people to oversee that are workplace managers.
Analyst firms have started to address digital employee experience, which is about worker satisfaction and assuring that managers can do their best work. When managers are burdened with mundane tasks like data entry and reporting, it takes away from more important tasks that involve creativity, customer service and deep problem-solving, Burian said. “The first objective in any automation journey is automating the mundane."
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The Limitations and Future of AI
Tori Miller Liu, president and CEO of the Association of Intelligent Information Management (AIIM), said she believes Gartner's 69% prediction may be overly aggressive.
Of course, let's keep in mind that Gartner released the research in March 2020, a few weeks into the pandemic. During the pandemic, Miller Liu said, we saw employee shortages, retention issues and a shift to remote and hybrid work, all of which impacted the push to automate routine tasks.
“Yet, I am not convinced organizations were prepared for automating routine tasks,” she said.
Automation is rarely as simple as setting up a rule or pushing the proverbial button, she said. Good, sustainable automation should start with process analysis and requirements gathering. It should include testing and quality assurance before use.
Automation also requires maintenance and governance to ensure that automated processes continue to provide accurate, error-free workflows.
“These are skillsets information management professionals possess, but not every organization has a mature information program,” Miller Liu said. “Organizations should be thinking about the management of automation just as much as the potential benefits.”
And while AI-enabled automation can make decisions, the value or accuracy of those decisions are predicated on the accuracy of the data provided and the math behind it. “The progress in generative AI is breathtakingly impressive, but the results can still be inaccurate,” she said. “For now, I look at AI as a guide for better human decision-making. That could absolutely change as the technology continues to improve, though."
No matter what happens, Miller Liu said, organizations will always need people to provide strategic direction and oversight over artificial intelligence and automation. “I don't view AI or automation as job killers. This technology is an opportunity for us to rethink roles and reskill where needed."
About the Author
David is a full-time journalist based in Ireland. A partisan of ‘green’ living and conservation, he is particularly interested in information management and how enterprise content management, analytics, big data and cloud computing impact on it.