Think your management job is safe? Beware: the 'iCEO' is coming

Upper-level positions may be much more amenable to automation than you think

The prospect of automation has long sparked fears of jobs lost to robotic replacements, but typically such worries have focused on blue-collar and other low-level positions. Well, the Institute for the Future has a message for all those in the upper echelons feeling complacent about their job security: The iCEO is coming.

In an article published Thursday in the Harvard Business Review, IFTF research director Devin Fidler described the results of an experiment he and his team recently conducted. Specifically, aiming to investigate the possibility of automating upper-level management, they created prototype software dubbed "iCEO."

The software is essentially a virtual management system that automates complex work by dividing it into individual microtasks and then assigning those tasks to workers using tools such as oDesk, Uber and email or text messaging. "Basically, the system allows a user to drag-and-drop 'virtual assembly lines' into place and run them from a dashboard," the article explains.

Fidler's team then put the iCEO through its paces, including a project to oversee the preparation of a large research report on graphene production for a hypothetical prestigious client.

For information on how graphene is produced, iCEO asked workers on Amazon's Mechanical Turk to curate a list of articles on the topic. The resulting list of articles was passed on to technical analysts from oDesk; Elance writers then used them to produce a coherent text. That went on to a pool of experts for review, followed by a sequence of oDesk editors, proofreaders and fact checkers for finalization.

iCEO routed tasks across 23 people from around the world; it created, formatted and prepared 60 images and graphs.

"We stood back and watched iCEO execute this project," Fidler wrote. "We rarely needed to intervene. ... We were amazed by the quality of the end result -- and the speed with which it was produced."

As opposed to taking several weeks for the research portion alone of such a report, iCEO did that piece in just three days. Creating the full report took just weeks rather than months.

IFTF also ran pilot tests focusing on sales, quality assurance and hiring, and the results were surprisingly positive.

The bottom line: "It will not be possible to hide in the c-suite for much longer," Fidler wrote. "The same cost/benefit analyses performed by shareholders against line workers and office managers will soon be applied to executives and their generous salaries."

IFTF will need a year or two to make the technology ready for full-fledged enterprise adoption. How to prepare in the meantime? CIOs should begin by thinking more about dynamic resource routing, since that's at the heart of how technology like iCEO gets things done, Fidler said.

On a broader level, organizational management is on the verge of a major disruption, he added. "We'd love to see people beginning to think through the future of work on a deeper level."

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