Meet your robot boss


One of the latest buzzwords in HR tech is “Employee Listening Technology”. Not “employee listening technique”, as a communication skill, but technology, i.e. a computer program. Listening to presentations on what the computer systems will be able to do, I noticed the lack of human managers’ role in the vision of this technology, and that made me think... Will this technology, to some degree, replace managers in the future?

Employee Listening will follow employees from their application, onboarding, through daily work until they exit the organization. The system will ask people about their experience at each stage. It will also regularly poll employees’ engagement level with a few “pulse” questions, and it will dig deeper when issues arise. It will also monitor employees’ activities, and it will detect the work process bottlenecks and will find the points of frustrations. It will accumulate big data on the employees, which will provide insights into employees’ attitudes such as flight risk, for example.

The aim of Employee Listening technologies is enhancing the employee experience. Probably in some cases the “listening” will turn into “spying”, like in the H&M case where the company was found guilty of illegal 'surveillance' of its employees and was fined 35 Million Euro by the German authorities. In this case, according to news reports, the company recorded and stored information on employees’ family situations, family problems, religious beliefs, symptoms of illness and diagnoses, among others. However, this article is not about the ethical risks around big data, since I trust that this will be worked out, these boundaries will be established. My point is the new vision of the workplace, where there are the employees and the system, and not much is mentioned about managers.

Historically, before computers entered the stage, all decisions were made by people, of course. People used paper forms to record information. Computers were first used to make the recording work more efficient by digitizing the information. Then came the Enterprise Resource System – ERP. ERPs took over the management of transactions, such as decisions about when to order raw material, how much to order, which machine line shall produce which product in what quantity, and so on. The ERP took over a lot of decisions and managerial roles from people. HR Information Systems (HRIS) also started by making employee records digital. Later the systems were helping the managers in administrative tasks such as payroll and attendance management and supporting the managers in processes such as performance management. However, until now, the HR decisions were made by humans. You can read it on almost every corporate website that “our greatest asset is our people”. It is interesting to think about how long it will stay like that? Will managerial functions be also taken over by computer systems in the future? Will you experience the day when your boss will be a robot?

The rise of “Employee Listening Technology” suggests that another part of the managers’ job will be supported by computer systems: programs will monitor whether everything is running smoothly. This is not science fiction; these employee listening programs are already being used in some companies. So, will AI replace your boss in the near future? We can only speculate about this. Every manager knows it is important to be a sensitive observer of their people, but most would also agree that only observing and listening doesn’t substitute deep conversations. AI is getting better in understanding human language (natural language processing), but how is it as a conversation partner? Can it generate its own “ideas”? How well can it “think” independently?

We know Alpha Go didn’t only beat the best Go player, but did it stylishly and creatively. Alpha Go proved that AI can be creative. When it comes to inspiring conversations, currently maybe the chatbot developed by Oriol Vinyal and Quoc Le at Google represents the cutting edge. You can google it and read the transcript of the dialogs this chatbot is capable to carry today. The chatbot doesn’t just repeat sentences it was trained on, but it builds new sentences creatively. While the chatbot is not an inspiring conversation partner yet, it is easy to see that it’s just a question of time when it gets there. A big part of the managerial role can be automatized, such as: introducing the workplace, people and processes; communicating goals and priorities; handling notifications, applications, and other administrative tasks; evaluating work output; teaching people technical skills, and so on. The corporation is a profit-oriented, structured environment where robots have many advantages. It might sound “anti-human” or “techno-fanatic”, but I think we will see robot managers much sooner than most people think!

Written by: Gabor Nagy