Skip to main content

My local football club recently told fans about a candidate for the vacant post of manager. "Although I am 15 years of age, and lack much coaching experience," his e-mail read, "I am very skilled at the computer game, Football Manager."

This sort of curriculum vitae is becoming more common. Last November, a football club in Azerbaijan appointed Vugar Huseynzade, 21, to a senior coaching position; the former business student suggested that years playing Football Manager would help. And why not? The U.S. military has used video games to attract candidates for years, and "drone" warfare has arguably made such skills vital to modern combat. High-school gamers seem to have an edge in robotic-surgery simulation, according to one study, and every chief executive officer I know boasts a "dashboard" of operating data.

Yet most people are as skeptical about remote-controlling CEOs as they are about square-eyed virtual surgeons, distant drone pilots and computer-trained football coaches. "He's an automaton" and "She's running on autopilot" are part of the anthology of classic criticisms of senior managers. Cut off from the consequences of their actions, senior executives, glued to a screen in the safety of a corner office, will feel freer to zap capital expenditures, close factories and fire workers.

But distance management is the way of the multinational world, anyway. Some CEOs cannot maintain regular contact with all their lieutenants, let alone with the tens of thousands under their supervision. Instead of asking why anyone would give a management job to someone who learned his trade from a computer game, we should ask why we haven't handed the role to the computer and dispensed with the error-prone human altogether.

Robots are becoming more sophisticated and, more often than not, it is humans that crash aircraft, not computers. The same goes for businesses. Companies are usually brought down by leaders' hubris, greed and simple mistakes, or, at best, hamstrung by their inadvertent bias or failure of insight.

Managers already rely on technology and should go further. Software schedules meetings and smooths communications. Computers monitor and analyze data for operations chiefs, run the supply chain for procurement managers, and assess, filter and occasionally shortlist candidates for human resources officers at companies such as Xerox Corp. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert cartoon, has suggested that networked robots would be better than humans at managing projects to time and budget. "One of the biggest advantages of a robot manager is that it can be a hard-ass jerk as often as that is called for," he blogged recently. As part of research firm Gartner's series of "maverick" reports, Nigel Rayner has forecast the evolution of predictive programs that will adjust strategy and reconfigure processes automatically. Managers would be free to concentrate on innovations, business opportunities and the crucial human interactions that underpin corporate success.

Technology will revolutionize these relationships, too, pace Dilbert. Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers have developed wearable "social-emotional technology" that alerts autistic individuals to subtle human signals they might miss. I can think of a few top executives who would benefit from such an empathy enhancer. CEO dashboards (assuming they survive the growth of online collaborative networks) will eventually provide insights into each team member's performance – and suggest to the boss how to tailor or motivate the team. Such tools could become as unremarkable as once innovative technological aids for executives such as mobile phones.

Robot leadership will remain largely science fiction, not least because of fears about jobs or algorithmic financial meltdown. But "bionic managers" – corporate equivalents of Steve Austin, The Six Million Dollar Man of the 1970s television series – should be welcomed. Mr. Austin was an astronaut, crippled in a crash, whose mechanical implants gave him extraordinary powers. The ordinary manager needs and deserves a similar boost. As the voice-over at the start of each episode put it: "Gentlemen we can rebuild him. We have the technology … Better than he was before. Better …stronger … faster," – and, at $6-million, substantially cheaper than most fallible, flesh-and-blood CEOs.

Report an error

Tickers mentioned in this story