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Teaching autonomy to staff… and robots

One of the challenges of being the boss of a (very) small company is that the challenges of personal development come down to you. Though you can draw on external support for training, the shape of the development plan and its execution really comes down to you and your remembered experience of your own career.

In trying to encapsulate the journey I want my staff to undertake I came up with the simple diagram above.

When staff join me at a junior level I expect them to be input and command driven. Put simply, I will tell them what to do. They and I will measure whether or not their work has been done based on whether they have produced the things I have asked for, whatever their work product may be.

As they become more senior, staff look more at the impact of their work: the output. Is what they are doing adding real value? And is it the best use of their time given the wider goals of the company? With this in mind they become less command-driven — just doing what they are told — and more autonomous, choosing a course of action that will best benefit the organisation.

Now this is a very desirable change in the people who work for you. The more they can determine the right course of action for the organisation, the more value they are likely to deliver (as long as they can execute).

But what about robots?

I began thinking about the rise of robots in the workplace and where they fit on this continuum from command and input-driven to output-driven and autonomous.

I realised very quickly that the most frightening robots in fiction are the ones which are focused on delivering a specific outcome and, which use their autonomy in selecting the best route to that end. Think Skynet.

Right now, there is very little talk about the new software robots entering the workplace having either of these characteristics. Smart as they may be, they have very little autonomy outside of a narrow set of parameters, and their ‘understanding’ of any outputs is very limited.

Perhaps these are the characteristics we have to watch for. The ones that truly differentiate humans from machines right now. And the ones that they will have to replicate in order to displace more of us from the workplace.

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Tom Cheesewright