Editor’s Note: This article is one of a special series of 14 commissioned essays MIT Sloan Management Review is publishing to celebrate the launch of our new Frontiers initiative. Each essay gives the author’s response to this question:
“Within the next five years, how will technology change the practice of management in a way we have not yet witnessed?”
In the coming years, both business leaders and their employees will face a number of challenges as they deal with changing digital technologies. In particular, they will need to learn three important new skills: (1) how to partner with new digital “colleagues”; (2) how to create a mindful relationship with increasingly ubiquitous digital technologies; and (3) how to develop empathy for the varying technology preferences of their human coworkers. Organizations, for their part, will need to design programs and processes to support these efforts.
1. Partnering With Digital “Colleagues” Employees across a wide spectrum of industries will be working with what are, in effect, “digital coworkers” — algorithms that help them tackle a range of tasks such as answering call-center help desk questions, making financial investment decisions, diagnosing medical conditions, scheduling and running manufacturing assembly lines, and providing dashboard advice regarding important performance indicators. These digital colleagues will embody intelligence that evolves cognitively and learns continuously about the specific task it is applied to, by incorporating new solutions learned from experience and applying them to future problems.
Given the complexity and often real-time application of this sort of intelligence, it may be unnecessary and indeed impossible for human professionals to verify the veracity of an algorithm’s solutions. However, as the data become denser and algorithms get faster and more complex, there is a danger of “runaway algorithms” that become disconnected from the reality of the phenomenon they represent, eventually leading to wrong solutions. To prevent this, managers will need to retain their expertise and control over their tasks and processes. They should provide context for the decisions and recommendations of their digital partners by monitoring those decisions from time to time and recalibrating them against their own experience, insight, and intuition — even going against their digital coworkers if necessary.