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 is 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. 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. 

Who’s for Business?

It seems opposition to proposals intended to help the greater mass of people, such as providing a livable wage or ensuring healthcare for all or having regulations that ensure a healthy and safe environment, quite often is that they would not be good for business. It does seem that business is opposed to being helpful to people in society, which is consistent with Milton Friedman’s (neoliberal) contention that a business enterprise has no responsibility apart from maximizing profit and shareholder value (over the next quarter).

 

So, who’s for business? Continue reading

A Drowning Class and the Invisible Hand

Whether as a symptom of or as a commentary about the state of affairs of the U.S. economy we hear many (pundits especially) say the middle class is declining… if not disappearing. A growing number of people the state of affairs is quite stormy as they are finding it harder and harder to stay above water, yet for a select few who are smoothly sailing along it has never been better. Continue reading

If We Cared About Our Development

A recent HBR article (Why companies are so bad at treating employees like people) by Herminia Ibarra speaks to the need to re-invent the workplace if there is to be human development at work. As Ibarra characterizes it, this re-invention requires “reimagining complex organizations so that they are more human and agile.” The implication seems to be that making organizations more human and agile involves solving the “thorny problem of developing people.” Continue reading

A Theory for Leadership for a Human World

Leadership, according to Peter Northouse (2010, p 3), is a process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal. So then is evidence of leadership the achievement of a goal by a group? Does the goal matter? Do the means matter? Continue reading

Leadership Untainted

When most people talk of leadership what they are really speaking to is the highest levels in the management hierarchy. They are talking about the legitimate authority positions in an organization. They speak of leadership as if it was a noun, a name we attribute to a person or position. Continue reading

When Being Cooperative is Destructive

Many elected public officials formulate legislation favoring those who provide large sums of money to them (in support of their election/re-election) irrespective of the legislation’s impact on the citizens—the collective ‘we’—they are elected to represent. What is the consequence of such action?  Essentially there is no consequence!  Why? Because those who could take action are reticent to do so since they too benefit from this quid pro quo system.   So they cooperate—if not collaborate—with special interest.  If lobbying weren’t effective, why else would the number of lobbyist have grown?

 

There are corporate executives who create and manage an organization that behaves in environmental and/or socially damaging (if not fraudulent) ways.  More often than not this way of managing provides the executives and their minions significant material gain and the citizens of the country significant devastation. What is the consequence of such practice?  None to very little! Why? Because those who could take action are reluctant to do so since they too benefit from the way things are.  So they cooperate keeping things as they are.  This is likely why regulating agencies and corporate boards overlook rather than provide oversight.

 

Selfish Cooperation

What’s operative in each?  Self-interest maximization; a what’s in it for me orientation. In a socio-economic system that concerns itself primarily if not solely with self-interest—not the collective ‘we’, the interdependence of living systems and society at-large—the resultant quid pro quo arrangements determine the future we all will likely experience.  It is no surprise that follow the money often leads investigators toward identifying the puppeteers.

 

We cooperate with the system—no matter how dysfunctional.  In a democracy voting is the primary means for individuals to participate and thus cooperate with the system of government thus ensuring its continuance. In organizations striving to meet the measureable goals cascaded down from the top of the hierarchy is the primary means for individuals to cooperate with the system.  A profit making and maximizing system, exclusively for those directing the game, is the order of the day—so fall in line, play the game.

 

We Can All Hope

So we cooperate while hoping that changing the players directing the game will change the game—hence our obsessive focus on leadership.  Or is it we keep the game going thinking that once we get to the top of the hierarchy we will some how change the game.  Unfortunately it hasn’t and it likely never will happen!

 

Hope involves seeing/envisioning a way for things to get better so many have hope for change.  Some hope to return to the imagined better times of the past and others imagine a new reality.  In either case, people hope that the future will be better than the present.   Both are holding steadfast to an imaginary reality and thus not seeking to understand the why of what is.  It is the present that is most correlated with the future, yet many seem to run from it.

 

Game Change Requires Mind Change

Nothing will change unless the system itself is fundamentally changed!  You don’t change the game by continuing rolling the dice on your turn; this just keeps the game going.  Cooperating with a system ensures its continuance.

 

We aren’t independent individuals whose sole purpose in life is to amass as much material wealth as we can—bumping into each other as we each strive to have it all for ‘me’.  It is not that self-interest is not within our nature it is that self-interest is not the essence of our nature.  However those directing things would have us believe that we are at base self-interest seeking because it best serves their self-interest—they benefit most when we all are concerned about what’s in it for me.  This keeps people from coming together as we—divide and conquer works most times, but only in the short-term.

 

I remember (many years ago) being in a meeting where the president of a division of a company I was working for said, “look to your left and look to your right because 1 in 3 people won’t be here next year. “  What’s the message?  It is not I want you all to work together, but rather I want each of you to worry about yourself.  This president wasn’t seeking to foster an inspired collective we but rather bunch of me’s that could be easily controlled by fear.

 

I left the company within several months of that meeting.  Eventually the division floundered, not because I had left but because the division was never able to actualize the potential among those it employed.

 

Unfortunately when individuals act out of their self-interest, when there is little to no concern beyond what’s in it for ‘me’—when a sense of caring stops at one’s own skin—then the destruction of either the organization or society (which includes all individuals) is inevitable.

 

So why is there hope?  Could it be that because the absence of hope ushers in despair and so everyone is simply deluding him/her self to avoid feelings of despair?  Rather than being hopeful, I suspect we’d all be better off if we got heretical.

 

Black Holes

Let me begin with a statement from a previous posting:

 

“When people are given the legitimate authority associated with a position in an organization’s (management) hierarchy, they are also necessarily entrusted with the development of those over whom they have been given formal authority.  Sadly some become intoxicated with exercising power over others that they deny and ignore the responsibility for the care and concern of others.  Upholding this latter responsibility is in large measure what separates the good leaders from the bad.” Continue reading