The Hybrid Organisation

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The Hybrid Organisation

11:49 30 November in Corporate Social Responsibility

The human-machine relationship is changing rapidly.

Algorithms are already being used to aid legal work, journalism, and recruitment and to expand human capability. Assumptions about the type of jobs that will be automated are starting to be turned on their heads as a new class of ‘robot’ managers emerge. Meanwhile the blockchain ecosystem is creating the conditions for the emergence of distributed autonomous organisations that can operate outside human control, and make new ownership and value-creation models viable. What does all this mean for the world of work?

A cartoon orange car with passengers in it moving without a driver on light blue background with simple text.

The theme of the hybrid organisation is about the integration of autonomous systems and machine intelligence in the workplace, alongside humans. Three distinct ‘layers’ of automation are happening, which are explored below, and their potential implications.

Automation of tasks

Automation of tasks and individual roles gets most of the media attention at the moment; robot surgeons and AI lawyers are in the news, while Uber tests driverless cars. Understandably, there is concern about displacement of jobs, particularly in the US where up to half of all job-related tasks are estimated to be automatable in the next decade or two. Discussions about potential solutions such as a Universal Basic Income (UBI) are moving rapidly from the fringes to the mainstream as the wider systemic implications of near-term automation such as driverless trucks become evident.

However in many workplaces, a significant portion of this automation is likely to be ‘hybrid’, where a human is assisted to either work differently or do more work, some of which would not have been done before. For example, automated insights claim that their Wordsmith software has not led to the loss of a single job, but has instead enabled the writing of millions of reports and articles that would not have previously existed, such as personalised write-ups of fantasy football games. Other forms of ‘hybrid’ assistance – such as AI personal assistants – tend to focus on automating the boring, data-intensive or even dangerous aspects of jobs, arguably freeing up humans to do more of the creative and rewarding parts.

If this promise holds up, what might it mean for the working environment? Could ‘hybrid’ automation lead to more fulfilling jobs and better use of human potential? Conversely how do we head off the risk that humans become seen as ‘gap-fillers’ for the jobs that machines can’t yet do?

Automation of management systems

It doesn’t just stop at the automation of tasks. A potentially radical shift in the workplace is happening without much fanfare and proceeding rapidly – the use of algorithms to schedule, supervise and manage human work. In 2015, Institute for the Future (IFTF) created a virtual management system called iCEO that applies a version of the Uber model to knowledge work. It automates the management of a complex project by breaking it up into myriad micro-tasks and assigning them to a crowd of distributed workers on platforms such as oDesk and Mechanical Turk. On testing, iCEO did remarkably well, producing a high quality report in a fraction of the usual time, and proving that an automated ‘management recipe’ is possible for knowledge work.

IFTF is now working with Rethinkery Labs to commercialise iCEO and broaden its application to fields like sales and recruitment. They claim to be moving rapidly towards a vision of fully autonomous organisations – what they call the ‘self-driving company’ – where people work largely under the direction and supervision of software.

Gartner adds credence to this claim in its recent forecasts, which feature the eye-catching prediction that 3 million people will be working for a ‘robo-boss’ by 2018. Bear in mind that 200,000 workers already work under the direct supervision of an algorithm – which also evaluates their performance – Uber’s automated management system.

The rise of such automated systems obviously links strongly to the gig economy, and marks a shift away from well-defined jobs and towards workflows, as explored in our ‘un organisation’ theme. There are also serious wider questions to consider. What might it mean to have such a switch in the power relationship between machines and humans for a significant fraction of the working population? How do we keep human needs and the nurturing of human potential at the centre of such systems? How do we prevent the ‘machine value’ of efficiency from dominating the human values of empathy and creativity? The need for skillful and compassionate human managers or coaches may actually increase in such a scenario.

Automation of entire organisations.

The emerging blockchain ecosystem created by Ethereum is birthing a new type of organisation – the decentralised autonomous organisation or DAO. These are leaderless, code-based entities that run on several hundred or thousand computers at once, executing ‘smart contracts’ that code the organisation purpose and activities, and are funded by the cryptocurrency they issue. Although these are very much still in their infancy, it is already clear that it is possible to build DAOs that operate outside human supervision – beyond the initial coding. We may see examples of these in the near future that hire humans as contractors but are run by machines. Such entities could bear a strong resemblance to the ‘self-driving companies’ described above, with a crucial additional feature. The distributed nature of DAOs – they are hosted on thousands of computers – makes them almost impossible to shut down.

The potential implications of DAOs are very wide, and still poorly understood, and there is uncertainty about their legal status. Gartner forecasts that by 2020, ‘autonomous software agents outside of human control will participate in five percent of all economic transactions’. The whole paradigm of ownership, management, employment and value creation may shift surprisingly rapidly.

In light of these three layers of ongoing automation, it’s clear that the world of the workplace is likely to change significantly over the next decade. Forum for the Future’s project workshops strongly emphasised the need to keep the human element central during any transition to automation. Key questions that emerged were – What happens to human interaction in a world increasingly optimised for machines? And can we use these technologies to actually make our work ‘more human’ rather than less, by re-framing the world of work to suit our collective and individual human needs?

Austin Clark
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