Now you can be in two places at once

By Michael Schrage, research fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management’s Center for Digital Business.

Cutting-edge, tech-savvy managers no longer use technology just to make their jobs easier and faster. Thanks to the convergence of new technologies, knowledge workers will soon be able to create virtual “agents” that help them perform multiple jobs in multiple places at the same time.

The result? Tomorrow’s most coveted employees will use technology not only to work faster and better, but also to extend and multiply their skills, judgment and presence across their company’s computer networks and beyond.

What’s making this possible is smarter software that makes it easier to train computers and smartphones to retrieve data, recognise what’s important and then act on the information in appropriate ways. A crude form of this is Apple Siri virtual personal assistant, available in the latest iPhone, which can look up phone numbers and make calls, get directions and schedule meetings in response to voice commands.

But Siri is just a good first draft. Future versions, using predefined rules and access to vast storehouses of data, will be able to make decisions and take actions on your behalf.

Let me offer a simple example. A few years ago, a hard-charging executive digitally intimidated his global workforce by firing off emails at all hours of the day and night. Detailed queries and requests for immediate action would pop up in managerial mailboxes at midnight, 2:30am and just before dawn. If no response materialised within 12 hours, a follow-up email invariably appeared. He never appeared to sleep.

His secret? He had programmed his computer to randomly send out his end-of-day email queue between the hours of midnight and 6am, while he was sound asleep. The emails were tagged to generate a stern reminder if the recipient hadn’t replied. This simple software deception reinforced his reputation as relentlessly omnipresent. His people tried to work as tirelessly as they thought he did.

Or here’s another example. The chief financial officer of a global bank group wrote a program that collected data from both online spreadsheets and the business-intelligence software that managers used to keep track of key performance measures for the business. His software agent could identify potential early-warning signs and trigger an alert when the performance indicators rose or fell outside a preset range.

Whenever—and wherever—an operating executive revised a plan or received unanticipated data, the CFO’s software silently sniffed out the change and brought it to the master’s dashboard.

Because his software synthesised data from so many systems, this CFO detected operational issues that individual business line managers couldn’t catch. His suggested tweaks and fixes pre-empted problems before they became painful. He was able to monitor and service dozens of real-time financial adjustments at once—far more than he could have had he just been monitoring the results on his own. The result? He was regarded as the bank’s most knowledgeable and prescient executive. The board loved him.

Similarly, it’s easy to imagine a web-based application that can recognise and understand multiple voices at the same time, allowing an executive to participate in multiple mission-critical meetings at the same time. Using the app, the executive’s smartphone would listen in on the meetings and automatically transcribe the conversations. If the software detected phrases or subjects that called for her active involvement, she’d be immediately alerted.

These examples offer a template for the kinds of tools now possible, and which will allow savvy managers to be far more influential than they can be today. Their virtual experts will allow them to have a pervasive digital presence without taking time and attention from more important tasks, while freeing them to intervene physically when necessary.

In fact, soon, one of the most important professional decisions executives will have to make will be how much they trust their software agents and other support systems to take action without their explicit approval.

Of course, virtual agents come with risk. Even the most effective executives have cognitive limits, for example. At some point, the same tool that enables executives to give their attention to multiple meetings can become the means by which they stretch themselves too thin.

Technology-aided micromanagement can create problems as well. Managers might not like being second-guessed, tattled on, or manipulated by a piece of software. Employees typically prefer to be mentored and motivated by people, not technologies. These are risks and issues that companies must acknowledge and manage.

And, of course, the technology is still young. The ability to pick up nuances at meetings or subtle flaws in sales presentations remains a hard computational problem.

Still, senior leaders want as clear a view into their organisations as possible, and avoiding blind spots is increasingly critical. The digital ability to simultaneously drill down into the details of a business process and key customer relationship can be extraordinarily valuable. That’s why more, and better, agents are inevitable.

We talk a lot about the consumerisation of IT. But it doesn’t just mean tapping the power and convenience of the coolest new gadget. It also represents the way technically ingenious employees adopt technologies that amplify and project their effectiveness. That in turn has the power to transform organisational productivity and competitiveness.

The Wall Street Journal

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