January 5, 2016

Survey: Middle Managers Wary of Machine Intelligence

George Leopold

Cognitive computing in the form of intelligent machines is making inroads within the managerial ranks of companies, but a new survey finds a lack of trust and uncertainly about the best use of the emerging technology.

In a report on the promise and pitfalls of using intelligence machines in the workplace, market analyst Accenture Strategy argues the technology can be used to free up managers’ time to focus on strategic initiatives. Nevertheless, the study found several hurdles for widespread adoption, including a “trust gap within the managerial ranks.”

While 46 percent of high-level managers said they would trust advice provided by intelligent systems, only 24 percent of mid-level managers expressed strong support for the technology. Perhaps fearful of being replaced by a machine, only 14 percent of front-line managers surveyed showed enthusiasm for working with intelligent machines.

The study’s author’s acknowledged that the rise of machine intelligence in the workplace will take some getting used to, meaning for now there is “no clear path to realizing the opportunity [that extends from] automation to augmentation.”

Still, 84 percent of managers surveyed by Accenture said intelligence systems would boost their job performance and even make their work more interesting. Performance monitoring and scheduling resources were among the mundane tasks that could be handed over to machines. “Intelligent machines will also free managers to focus on more strategic issues and activities,” the study emphasized.

Akin to big data analytics, proponents tout intelligent machines as emerging tools for augmenting managers’ decision-making capabilities. Hence, managers would be freed to focus on what the survey calls “judgment work” that places a higher value on human intuition as machines take over simpler, repetitive and time-consuming managerial tasks.

Among the emerging skills needed by managers are creative thinking and experimentation, data analysis and interpretation and closer collaboration.

While the survey found enthusiasm for intelligence systems among senior executives, they also have their work cut out for them bridging the “trust gap” among middle and front-line managers. To narrow the gap, the study authors recommend that top managers select intelligent systems with a proven track record while providing a credible reason for adopting the technology.

“Without trust, it’s unlikely an organization will be able to do more than automate a few routine managerial tasks,” the survey concludes.

Another way of building trust is deploying intelligent systems that can provide actionable intelligence. For example, systems designed with real-time data analysis capabilities could provide a sales force with recommendations for adjusting a promotional campaign. In another use case, intelligence machines could take over routine and time-consuming tasks like financial reporting.

Those front-line applications, the study argues, could help free managers to spend more time on strategic planning or development of revenue-generating products and services.

“To take full advantage of what the cognitive computing revolution has to offer, leaders must ensure that their organizations have the capacity to change,” the survey concludes. “Those that get it right will create a culture of experimentation and trust among leaders at all levels. They will be the ones to unlock the potential of the workforce of the future.”

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