Leadership and management in the age of robots

Pat Chapman-Pincher posted this on

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Leadership skills and management styles have always evolved over the years, but businesses are facing an unprecedented era of change in the way they manage their teams. Intelligent automation in the workplace, or “the age of robots” as many are calling it, presents a difficult question. How do you manage humans and robots as they stand side-by-side on the factory floor?

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That old joke about the survey that has a box to tick for “Male/Female/Other” may soon come true. The debate about diversity is about to enter a new era. We’ve worried about women and minorities of all sorts but so far managers have had to manage teams that consist of men and women. What happens to your leadership skills when your team is made up of men, women and robots? 

Machines in the past were tools, machines in the future will be colleagues with all the management issues that implies. We will probably not be there for a few years yet, but this is beginning to happen in the manufacturing sector.

Roland Menassa, GE’s Head of the Advanced Manufacturing and Software Technology Center is preparing for such a future. Talking about manufacturing he says: “With the rapidly evolving ‘New Robotics’, we recognized that we needed robots that were safe enough to work beside humans, could be easily trained to do tasks by their ‘colleagues’ on the line and able to perform more than a single task.”

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He foresees a day when a production operator is given a robot as a “partner” when they join. The robot would be part of the employee’s team and would be trained by his colleague. He makes the point that the robot will be working along highly skilled employees and will enable them to use their skills more effectively and over a broader range of tasks. They will enable manufacturing to be far more flexible, to manage shorter product runs and to be more responsive to market trends than current methods.

He makes the point that “the ‘DNA’ of collaborative robots is different” and in ways that make them safe to work alongside humans. They can also be trained by their colleagues using simple demonstration, show them what needs to be done and they will do it perfectly.

It means that instead of manufacturing lines being arranged around robots, new manufacturing can be human-centric.

That sounds like a very good future but as with all progress there are implications.

Roland Menassa is talking about a one to one relationship – skilled operator to robot, with the robot taking on many of the less skilled, more repetitive tasks and allowing the operator to do higher skilled tasks.

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However, those lower skilled tasks are currently done by lower skilled humans, who may be replaced by flexible robots. At the moment, even in the western world, the economics of replacing lower skilled labour with robots does not quite work, the robots are still more expensive. It won’t be long however before the cost curves cross and then the implications for jobs will become real.

So if you are running a manufacturing company, I am sure you are keeping an eye on the technology as Roland Menassa is. What I very much doubt is whether the implications for hiring, for training and for leadership are being thought through.

How do you train people to work alongside robots as “colleagues”? What does this mean for your current work force and for your recruitment practices?

All these questions need to be thought through before the robot colleagues arrive on the factory floor.

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