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Matti Apunen: A problem called excellence

Text: Matti Apunen | 1.12.2017

We can speculate about how new information technology – Big Data, adaptive software, artificial intelligence – will affect production. We know what it will do to some professions, but what about leadership?

Data-grinding devices will transform working life and overturn old power relationships within organisations. The hierarchy of the future will differ from the current expert organisation, which resembles a middle-aged man in more than just its composition – it, too, seems a little thick around the middle.

Middle management will be slimmed down. A range of analysis and preparatory tasks are under particular threat, because machines that break down big data are far superior in these areas. This leaves front-line staff, most experts and senior management.

In such a world, reporting and analysis will be real-time, giving managers less to monitor and manage, but leaders more to lead.

The impact of AI is surprisingly often viewed as a contest over jobs, in which either people or machines are the winner. A more probable world is one in which both robots and people are the winners, a combination in which software complements human performance. And then there are the opportunities provided by leaps forward in efficiency – super productivity where a single employee performs 100 times better than the norm.

This represents a huge change in working life, which will force us to rethink certain basic principles of human leadership.

Taneli Tikka, an executive who has analysed robotics and leadership, says that coaching is the unavoidable modus operandi of modern business management.

This sounds simple, but it is anything but simple in an environment previously built on monitoring and surveillance. We can track football players, measure the metres they run and challenges they make, but this does not add up to winning tactics.

– A leader must do everything to ensure that the work of super-productive individuals is sufficiently supported, resourced and enabled, says Tikka.

This idea is easy to accept at management and shop-floor level, and even among trade unions. The issue changes as soon as people begin to consider what this means for me? And this, of course, is the question that concerns them first and foremost.

If we accept increasing productivity differences, will we accept super-bonuses for super-productive people?

We have no choice, because in the open international labour markets top talents are recognised from afar and attractive offers are made across borders. Without further consideration of the issue, I will make the bold claim that our incentive systems are too cautious.

At the level of the working community, this is ultimately the dilemma faced by Antti Rokka in the Finnish classic war novel, the Unknown soldier. Rokka is an outstanding professional soldier who refuses to conform to general formalities and routines. To what extent are we willing to grant special freedoms to the Rokkas of the digital battlefield? Why should they be burdened with numbing, night-time guard duties?

No reason comes quickly to mind, except that special freedoms create the sense of a privileged elite and break organisations down from the inside. There is no universally applicable mathematical solution to this problem. It may be that human instincts will be the only solution to it when machines have surpassed us in every other regard.

 

 

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