Leading like a (non-)robot
Artificial intelligence, increasing business automation, the internet of things and the combination of these technologies are changing our business world in an unprecedented way. However, what does this mean for executives and what are the ethical and moral implications of this development?
The prospect is as intriguing as it is daunting: Jack Ma, the boss of Alibaba, the largest Chinese e-commerce company, reckons that there will be robo-executives and even robo-CEOs in the not too distant future. His argument is simple: robots are by far more objective and less sensitive than humans. But is that really true? Advocates of his argument emphasize that robo-CEOs would no longer have any biases and would have a much more holistic view of a situation because of all the data and information they have at their disposal (which they would also be able to process in a very short time). In view of this situation and in order to counteract the daunting prospect of robo-bosses, executives will need to focus even more on showing empathy and supporting their teams.
The thought that machines might take over their jobs causes a feeling of unease among employees. Executives should address this issue in a proactive and understanding manner. On the one hand, AI technologies - such as autonomous cars - have yet to gain people's trust; on the other, it is important to understand the concerns of employees regarding the question of what role they will play as humans in businesses.
While monotonous tasks will increasingly be performed by machines, there is hardly a substitute for creativity and social behavior. New job profiles whose names are not even known today will emerge. As machines take the places of human employees when it comes to carrying out routine tasks, the structures of businesses will change - in future, the demand for qualified professionals will increase, and so will their expectations in terms of pay. Hence, the following is clear: The better their qualifications, the more likely human employees are to keep their jobs. Moreover, when new jobs are created, these will, first and foremost, be executive jobs - according to a survey carried out by the consulting company Capgemini, two in three new positions will involve executive responsibilities.
Building Trust and Giving People Room for Maneuver - a Delicate Balancing Act
What is also clear is that executives are increasingly expected to be knowledgeable about, and have a feel for, new technologies. Given the omnipresence of digitalization, it is not enough today to simply let the IT department deal with information technology. As far as AI is concerned, businesses should neither be overly euphoric about it, nor should they reject the technology outright. Rather, they need to strike an appropriate balance when it comes, for example, to using AI: What makes really sense for the business in question? What new business models are made possible by AI and automation?
Executives are expected, more than has previously been the case, to send out clear messages - this requires them to constantly keep learning, just as their organizations as a whole have to learn at all times. On the one hand, executives need to build trust and support employees in navigating transition processes; on the other, they must give highly qualified professionals the room for maneuver they need in order to be able to both come up with ideas and take things forward.
Artificial intelligence makes it possible for businesses to become more efficient and move into new fields. However, there needs to be a comprehensive strategy when it comes to integrating AI into the day-to-day work of employees and gaining a clear understanding of the benefits this will bring. Ethical concerns regarding intelligent machines and robo-workers have to be addressed not only by businesses but also - and indeed in particular - by governments and societies. The range of relevant topics includes fundamental issues, such as the future of the world of work in general, as well as questions concerning the scope of AI and automation applications and the chances and opportunities that this will open up for humans. This is a delicate balancing act that executives will have to accomplish as a matter of course.
The answer to this huge challenge could be a quintessentially European philosophical approach that, despite all the technological achievements, always puts people first and keeps an eye on the weakest in our society: Digital Humanism. In contrast to the "the winner takes it all" mentality in the US, where the focus is on (financial) success, and the total surveillance state in China, Europe is about to position itself in the golden middle: The focus is on the individual, and technology is there to drive innovation and make life even more livable for all of us. It is the moral values that we have collectively defined for Europe that should serve as a compass for the use of new technologies. If the great vision of the foundation of the European Economic Community over 60 years ago was lasting peace in Europe, it could be Digital Humanism for the decades to come: a vision shared by leaders, businesses and policymakers alike, for a livable future for us and our children, where new technologies serve people - and not vice versa.
Join 15,000 + professionals and get monthly updates on leadership and management topics. Learn something new every month.