Management and work – an interview with Anne-Sophie Tombeil Ph.D.

“Protecting humans against machines – As technologisation advances, it is important to make sure that routine work doesn’t become mindless and that non-routine work, on the other hand, doesn’t lead to an overload!”

A discussion with Dr. Anne-Sophie Tombeil on the effects of advancing technologisation from the perspective of labour research.

At FHI, you are working on the core theme of “service management” with a focus on the work of the future. What kinds of changes can we expect in the next few years?

First I’d like to note that we are certainly in a position to shape the future and developments that are taking place. What matters is that we are well-informed, acquire knowledge, explore opportunities and act on this basis. Especially in management, predictability will increasingly become a thing of the past. Future developments and how we attempt to shape them will be determined by two essential concepts: agility and resilience.The term agility is familiar from agile project management in software development – it means flexible, mobile, swift but also skilful. In the future, this mobility and flexibility will also enter many work areas beyond project work and in the production of Industry 4.0 – even areas whose particular flexibility limits were previously considered to be insurmountable. Resilience can be understood as being sturdy or indestructible, but also as being elastic or changeable. The key aspect is that there is also room for failure and a new beginning. It’s important to learn from crisis situations, to transform obstructions and emerge with greater strength as a result.

How does this demand for agility and resilience affect the management?

Management will change greatly on all levels. In the future it will need to orchestrate diversity and create networks. This also means that management must give up a hierarchical diction in favour of “enabling/supporting” and understanding and practicing management as a service for employees and the company. The four central competencies for this are: First, skilful coordination – of various people, at different places, in diverse contexts, with attention to securing interfaces. Second, the transfer of information – to ensure that everyone has the information they need. It’s not enough to make information available. What becomes important instead is to motivate people to use this information. Third, communication – it’s better to communicate too much than to lose someone along the way. Fourth, management culture – instead of announcements, it will be increasingly important to listen, observe and let go. The balance between physical and digital space will play a significant role. It is crucial that management creates an environment that is conducted more than controlled.

What influences the development of the work?

Thanks to the ongoing growth of digitisation, I expect different developments for routine and non-routine work. The latter will be complex, knowledge-intensive and highly responsible. In the future, the core staff will collaborate even more heavily with part-time and freelance workers, nationally and internationally. Routine work will be upgraded due to the automation, digitisation and artificial intelligence. Some tasks may be eliminated, but the necessary development of the systems, their rollout and improvement as well as the control of these systems will make the remaining work in the routine area more sophisticated. In the course of digitisation, a large task will be to organise the work division between humans and technology, systems and programs. Labour research has shown that, historically, more broadly designed workflows have a positive effect on the employees’ performance capacity and thus the quality of the end products. For the work itself, especially in a digitised work environment, it’s important not to lose sight of humanising the work and ensuring a humane organisation. The “protection of people against machines” must be considered: as we divide up the work and plan the new collaboration between humans and technology, we must make sure routine work does not lead to monotony, or non-routine work to an overload.

So technologisation and digitisation are problematic?

We could focus on the problems, but it may be more helpful to understand the necessity for transformation as offering room to be creative and confidently proactive. The Internet of Things, robotics and artificial intelligence will play an increasingly important role at all companies. This requires a renaissance of labour research and an exact analysis on an activity level: What activities are there? Which are done by humans? What can be supported digitally? And how can we structure a new quality in the collaboration between humans and machines? The biggest challenge is to find out which tasks, which degrees of discretion, which logical and ethical decisions can actually be mapped in algorithms and where we want a human to remain as a sensor, decision maker and counterpart. In addition to the development of supporting technology, implementation is also a topic. It’s not enough to make technology easily available. It is also important to find the right technology for a work system and those who work within it, to develop the competencies required for its usage and to ensure reliable support. This creates an important role for the human resource department at a company. With measures in skill development, it must be ensured that employees aren’t just able to use the digital tools but also want to use them.

Providing information as a key task of future managers: What kinds of opportunities do you see in the area of knowledge management?

The topic of knowledge management is still surprisingly underdeveloped. Not because the systems don’t exist. But obviously those that do exist aren’t attractive enough to the users. It was a misconception of the 1980s that knowledge is a resource that people like to share. But the unique selling point of knowledge work is precisely the edge in expertise. Without systems that provide transparency about whom the contents should be attributed to, for example, knowledge workers won’t share this “capital”. Participative techniques could be helpful here. But the development of such systems shouldn’t be purely driven by technology; it should also integrate existing social designs and agents. This would make it possible to develop systems that bring added value to the company as well as the employees, thus ensuring their commitment.

Anne-Sophie Tombeil studied political science and general rhetoric in Tübingen and Florence. Following posts at the Staatstheater Stuttgart, in the Baden-Württemberg Ministry of the Interior and in the President’s Office of the Fraunhofer Society, the focus of her work with the Fraunhofer IAO is currently on the topic of work in the digitalised world, the designing of service processes and business model innovation in value networks. Dr. Tombeil is married and has three children.

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