November 20, 2017

Will MBA graduates be replaced by robots?

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Shadow Dexterous Robot Hand holding a lightbulb

Shadow Dexterous Robot Hand holding a lightbulb (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One researcher into the effects of IT and automation has suggested they might. Pat Chapman-Pincher, writing in the Financial Times earlier this year, argues that  ‘business schools are no longer relevant in the age of automation’.

It’s not just business schools that aren’t keeping up with the implications of artificial intelligence (AI) according Chapman-Pincher. In a report she authored in 2015 (‘March of the Robots into the Boardroom’), she argued that just as CEOs and industry leaders had failed to grasp the consequences of the internet and mobile technology, they now aren’t getting the message about AI, in the UK at least. (‘Already there is a board in the Far East which has an algorithm as board manager with an equal vote’, Chapman-Pincher writes.)

As if that isn’t worrying enough for educated professionals, Chapman-Pincher rather distressingly quotes the Harvard cognitive scientist Steve Pinker: ‘as the new generation of intelligent devices appears it will be the stock analysts and petrochemical engineers and parole board members who are in danger of being replaced by machines. The gardeners, receptionists and cooks are secure in their jobs for decades to come.’

Even HR is worried. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), in their publication People Management, pose the question of ‘could an algorithm replace a recruiter?’. The idea has its supporters:  the CIPD article quotes one software entrepreneur saying ‘if we are ill we go to Google before we go to the doctor; an algorithm decides whether we get a mortgage.  But in HR, so much is still based on gut feeling’.

The article also reports the claim that recruitment software can remove bias in recruitment decisions. However, the author concludes that this claim is false because software is written by humans and may reflect their biases, suggesting that ‘a careful compromise (i.e. between software and humans) will be required’. But who is to say that organisations will bother? Won’t some organisations be tempted to just crunch the data through an algorithm even if the results are actually suboptimal, if that’s easier, cheaper and quicker?

But as any MBA graduate can tell you, it’s not the information or knowledge that is the most important benefit from working for and obtaining and MBA. The real value lies in acquiring the   ability to think in a strategic way to deal with the complex, real-world problems that managers have to face: the type of problem the design-theorist Horst Rittel called ‘wicked’, i.e. one that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory and changing requirements.

Algorithms are fine for dealing with ‘tame’ (easily defined) problems, but if they can’t replicate genuine strategic leadership they won’t be replacing MBAs. Well, not yet anyway…

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