Will Your Next Boss Be Human?

Michael Schrage, a research fellow at MIT Sloan School’s Center for Digital Business, has a compelling proposition: once machines track your every move and tell you exactly how to become more productive, will you listen to them?


Whether you think counting your steps with FitBit is motivating or a chore, you’ll have to get used to the idea that it’s only a matter of time before FitBit for business arrives on your device or in the mail via a wearable. Seemingly harmless software and/or software powered by big data algorithms will turn your working life into Big Brother on steroids, and you’ll have no choice but to use it.

As Schrage says in Harvard Business Review: “Anybody and everybody who wants to succeed in tomorrow’s organizations will have to commit to levels of self-monitoring, self-surveillance, and self-quantification that makes Orwell read like Pollyanna.”

How will this work, exactly? Schrage explains that much the way Amazon suggests books to read and Netflix recommends videos to binge watch, data aggregators will synthesize and customize explicit recommendations designed to make people productive and effective. Annoyed that your boss doesn’t give you enough attention? Fear not, for soon, algorithms will recommend strategies to boost your creativity, optimize your performance, manage your time, and improve on your work product based on your unique style.

An algorithm may serve as a communication coach, too. It could prompt an introverted employee to get out there and network, and an extroverted one to tone it down. It may help you solve a problem with a colleague, deliver criticism to a direct report, or manage a sticky political situation. Even if your boss did have the time to help you out, who’s to say his or her advice would be as good? What will win here, human intuition or scientific objectivity? The jury may be out now, but machines are only getting smarter whereas human capabilities are pretty static.

I suspect that initially, there will be some kind of backlash. After all, no one really wants to admit that machines can both define and measure excellence better than humans can, and no one wants to be relegated to the role of the “dumb human” who needs the crutch of technology to make the simplest decisions. However, eventually the cost benefits are bound to overtake any concerns. After all, can you imagine if every employee in your company was suddenly 25 percent more efficient and every action or decision was 50 percent more likely to be the right one? Yup, algorithmic advisors will become ubiquitous in our workplaces.

Even if “everyone’s doing it,” problems are bound to arise. With a machine monitoring our every move, will we feel claustrophobic and burned out? Does anyone have the self-discipline to follow an exhaustive professional improvement regimen? Will we be able to listen to sensible feedback that hurts our fragile egos? And how will we cope when a human executive tells us one thing, but our data suggests something else entirely? There are no easy answers to these questions, and only time will tell how we navigate them.

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