The automated CEO: Can technology replace managers?

Could the manager's role be automated? According to the success of a new software interface called iCEO, the answer is yes.

iCEO, the product of the Workable Futures Initiative at the Institute for the Future — an independent, nonprofit research organization in Silicon Valley, Calif. — is a virtual management system that automates complex work by dividing it into small individual tasks, according to the Harvard Business Review. The system then assigns these tasks to workers using multiple software platforms, such as oDesk, Uber, email and text messaging, essentially creating "drag-and-drop virtual assembly lines," that are controlled from a dashboard.

In a trial run of iCEO, the system was used to oversee the preparation of a 124-page report for a Fortune 50 company. Researchers spent a few hours plugging in the parameters of the project and then let the system work. iCEO executed the project without the need for intervention from the researchers, even to check the quality of individual components of the report. The end result amazed the researchers.

"The research alone for such a paper would typically take several weeks to complete; with iCEO, the research only took three days. And while creating the full report through a traditional management-employee structure would probably require months to complete, iCEO did it in just weeks," Devin Fidler, who heads the Workable Futures Initiative, wrote in HBR.

iCEO has also been used in pilot programs for assignments in sales, quality assurance and hiring, but researchers think additional applications are possible.

Although many people believe the strategic and creative demands of CEOs and project managers cannot be translated into automated processes, the same argument was once put forth regarding detailed craft work, Mr. Fidler points out. During the Industrial Revolution, by breaking down this work into discrete steps, the automation of craftsmanship became standard.

While management comes with information-intensive responsibilities, software interfaces are making it increasingly easier for computers to route and track work projects.

World-renowned leaders such as Bill Gates and Larry Summers have warned against automated managers and digital systems for their potential to disrupt jobs. Traditionally, the jobs affected by automation — specifically by robotics — namely affected those in blue collar and service working jobs while executives remained immune. Now, Mr. Fidler argues the same cost/analysis benefit performed by shareholders against assembly line works and office managers will soon be applied to executives and their high salaries.

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