Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Managers -- who needs them?

An article in the business section of the New York Times ("Maybe We Should Leave That Up to the Computer" New York Times 7/18/06 C4, available from Rollins here) got me thinking. Chris Snijders, a Dutch sociologist, thinks that routine managerial decisions are best left to computers and he has the research to prove it, at least to his own satisfaction.

Mr. Snijders studied the decision making of experienced purchasing managers in over 300 corporations and compared the quality of their software and hardware purchasing decisions. His home page gives more details about his findings but basically he found that experienced managers used less data and more of their intuition to guide their decisions and were outperformed by relatively simple computing algorithms.

I like these kind of articles for a couple of reasons. First they can be viewed as just another step in the long de-centering of humankind. Starting with the Copernican revolution which placed the sun instead of the earth at the center of the universe all the way to recent studies of animal behavior that are showing more and more traits that we thought were uniquely human are shared with various other species. It is bracing to be forced to consider what is really unique and important about what, in this case, a manager brings to an organization.

Secondly, and this is where librarians and the wider educational mission of the college comes in, how do we prepare students for a world in which as the NYT article notes, "humans becom[e] increasingly peripheral in making routine decisions, concentrating instead on designing ever better models"? Issues of critical thinking and information literacy, as well a technical capabilities, are key here and I think librarians -- in partnership with the teaching faculty -- need to play a part in preparing students for this new work environment. However, we must also remember that most decisions that we take (whether as managers or not) are not routine. Education (and reading widely and deeply in literature and non-fiction) should help us recognize the difference between the routine and extraordinary and help us act accordingly.

No comments: