Meet the New Boss


by Samuel Greengard

It's easy to overlook how much change has taken place over the last decade or so. GPS systems tell us how to steer our cars, Netflix tells us what to watch, and Amazon tells us what we want to buy.

Increasingly, we skip thinking about things and let automated systems make the decisions for us. Computers can be quite good at this; depending on the underlying algorithm and programming, the results can be amazing.

Or laughable.

For better or worse, there's no turning back. Computers will make more and more decisions for us in the years ahead. Heck, they will probably drive our cars and manage our homes soon.

There are unintended consequences, however. Not thinking might be fine when it comes to rote and routine activities. In theory, we gain more space to think strategically. But it can also train our brains to be lazy.

There are stories of people smashing up their cars or nearly driving off a cliff because the navigation systems told them to do so. There have been train crashes and plane crashes because automated systems reacted incorrectly and the conductor or pilot didn't realize there was a problem until it was too late.

Automated systems work well most of the time. But the greater the degree of automation, the more difficult it is for humans to identify and correct a flawed process or malfunction. And even if automation might reduce the odds of an error or accident, when a breakdown occurs the severity of the problem can grow exponentially.

The business world isn't exempt from this trend. It's important to ponder how computers and automation affect thinking among employees, customers and business partners. Sometimes automation alters processes to the point where people wind up more confused and entirely new (and unintended) social dynamics take place.

It's also crucial to remember that IT systems aren't a replacement for good decision making. It takes people to connect the dots--and transform data and information into knowledge. Successful organizations understand that they must make technology an aid, not a crutch.