Should Technology Replace People

When calling a company’s customer service, I am very frequently greeted by a virtual receptionist, which more often than not is a huge waste of time and an exceedingly frustrating experience. Yup, I am forced to fit my unique issue with a programed series of questions, which rarely ever represents my need.  In addition, turning frustration into annoyance, the programmed voice tells me that I (as a customer) am very important to the business enterprise. 

So the answer to the question, does technology employed by business meet our needs, I suspect—if my experience is not unique–most would offer a resounding No, Not Usually!

Such use of (labor saving) technology serves the company’s bottom line, not the customers’ needs. The use of technology here, even given the company’s warning ‘our options have changed so please listen carefully’demonstrates that it hasn’t even dawned upon management in authority that customers are not monolithic.  There is a difference between attending to each individual customer and attending to each customer as an individual (i.e. as a person).  Doing the latter can’t be attended to by a virtual receptionist, but clearly this isn’t stopping the management of business enterprises from cutting labor costs by any and all means.

Could Implies Should

As reported in The Guardian, robots will be increasingly employed by corporations to replace actual people.   Why is this happening?  Simple, it is better for the bottom line: Robot labor is far less costly than people labor!  After all, the company’s profit matters most—profit wins out over individual personal service every time.  The business of business is profit.

What jobs might be considered or included in this increased use?  The business minded answering this question will likely say, those positions with tasks that are formulaic thus lending to automation.  Greater insight into where the likely focus for job displacement lies can be realized by looking at the business organization from the perspective of its hierarchical structure.

Using the hierarchy as a framework, we can readily see the bifurcation of jobs into thinking versus doing.  With management driving the organization to its goals, the thinking jobs are at the top and the doing jobs are those on the lower rungs. Ultimately, as technology advances, those jobs not performed by those occupying the upper rungs in the organization’s hierarchy would be on the table for consideration. Clearly in a similar fashion to the decision regarding which jobs should be off-shored.  

It appears as though the burden in peoples’ lives caused by job displacement is thought of as an externality and thus not a criterion concern of management in the decision to employ labor saving technology.

Critically Thinking The Decision

First note, automatable implies programable. That is to say, jobs that are formulaic and executed via algorithms are programable and thus automatable. However, rather than keeping with the thinking versus doing dichotomy, we need to understand that not all the thinking going on in the organization is either creative thinking or critical thinking.  There is a considerable amount of routine (previously established) thought being applied, even in the upper levels of management. So let’s include for consideration what management attends to as well.  

It is instructive to understand the work in the organization in its context, the capitalist economic system, which is particularly relevant to upper level management tasks.  As discussed in a previous post, capitalism encourages, if not requires, business enterprises operating within it to align with its material growth maximization maxim. To this end, management is tasked to monetize all aspects of the company in the process of driving for profit maximization.  

As previously explained here, management is thus laser-focused on driving for ever increasing profit by any means. Results are what matters!  Consequently, management doesn’t just manage for results they manage by results. Management sets higher goals, applying the thought that raising standards will lead to better results.  Using results to get better results is clearly not reflective of sound logic, yet it is a popular practice. Furthermore, people are held accountable for results. Though unintended, results by any means can cause harm to others in the pursuit of results.  

Further as discussed here, not only is most everything translated into monetary terms, it is accepted management practice to reduce the evaluation of both individual and organizational performance—very dynamically complex phenomena—to a simple either/or dichotomy.  That is, performance evaluation is reduced to a good versus bad judgment relative to what is desired. The common practice is to assess and evaluate performance with the aid of a variance report, this management practice is akin to painting-by-the-numbers: Making it simple and formulaic with no need for understanding and critical thinking.

Sounds pretty algorithmic, and quite automatable, don’t you think? 

When An Externality Is No Longer That External

Replacing higher priced (management) labor with lower cost robots would surely drive results!  But, in this case, the use of robots would not be considered, even though it would result in far fewer people becoming unemployed.  This option is likely not on the table. 

When what was previously an externality (i.e. the very personal impact on some ‘others’ becoming unemployed) turns to being quite personal—me losing my job–then it changes everything. In this scenario, the externality becomes an internality; something that is very much personally felt. That is to say, the decision to automate one’s own job no longer fits the often-heard expression, nothing personal, it’s just business, which is often offered to absolve the decision-maker from responsibility of the very (personal) human cost of the decision.

Technology Alone Is Neither Bad Nor Good

The argument above is not to say that (labor saving) technology must never be brought into the work of the organization.  Those making this decision must not view—with one eye open–the organization as an independent entity.  Rather what must be understood is that it is deeply interdependent within the larger system of people in society; that is, there are no externalities to dismiss.  In short, the decision regarding the why, what and how of employing (labor saving) technology should not be made with one eye open and focused solely on the organization as an independent entity. Accordingly, some of the questions that need to be asked and fully explored include what is the intent, who is to benefit, who might be harmed as a result of employing the technology?  Are the benefits and burdens to each and all stakeholders just and equitable? What are the consequences—both intended and unintended as well as short and long term—of employing the particular technology? In short, having a systemic perspective and understanding must inform the decision whether and how to employ a (labor saving) technology. 

2 thoughts on “Should Technology Replace People

  1. Gregory, I found the part about replacing highly valued labor with machines to be most interesting. It reminds me of some bold claims made by the OR practitioners in the 1960s and 1970s that managerial decision-making could be automated, through the use of linear programming, network flow theory, and queuing models. Some of the insights of OR showed up in ERP systems that were implemented in the 1990s and 2000s. But, as you mentioned in connection with automated receptionists, there are some things that–at least for the foreseeable future–robots won’t be able to do. I would guess that performing “leadership” work, which is necessary in order to secure the commitment of Labor to an organization’s objectives, is one of those things. What do you think?

  2. John:
    I agree, not all (work) could or should be performed by technology. Leadership work is fundamentally about facilitating the emergence of (humanly) productive relationships through which human progress can be realized. In regard to the organization’s objectives, the fact that organizations are deeply interdependent and within the larger system of humankind and nature speaks to them having to be consistent with the needs of people/society. Commitment would then be relatively straightforward. Unfortunately those in authority within most organizations haven’t this perspective and understanding.

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