Digital computers have transformed work in almost every sector of the economy over the past several decades (1). We are now at the beginning of an even larger and more rapid transformation due to recent advances in machine learning (ML), which is capable of accelerating the pace of automation itself. However, although it is clear that ML is a “general purpose technology,” like the steam engine and electricity, which spawns a plethora of additional innovations and capabilities (2), there is no widely shared agreement on the tasks where ML systems excel, and thus little agreement on the specific expected impacts on the workforce and on the economy more broadly. We discuss what we see to be key implications for the workforce, drawing on our rubric of what the current generation of ML systems can and cannot do [see the supplementary materials (SM)]. Although parts of many jobs may be “suitable for ML” (SML), other tasks within these same jobs do not fit the criteria for ML well; hence, effects on employment are more complex than the simple replacement and substitution story emphasized by some. Although economic effects of ML are relatively limited today, and we are not facing the imminent “end of work” as is sometimes proclaimed, the implications for the economy and the workforce going forward are profound.
Researchers tested the effects of including cues, anchors, and savings goals in a company email encouraging employee contributions to their 401(k).
Researchers found that providing high contribution rate or savings goal examples, or highlighting high savings thresholds created by the 401(k) plan rules, increased 401(k) contribution rates by 1-2% of income per pay period.
Although evidence-based algorithms consistently outperform human forecasters, people often fail to use them after learning that they are imperfect, a phenomenon known as algorithm aversion. In this paper, we present three studies investigating how to reduce algorithm aversion. In incentivized forecasting tasks, participants chose between using their own forecasts or those of an algorithm that was built by experts. Participants were considerably more likely to choose to use an imperfect algorithm when they could modify its forecasts, and they performed better as a result. Notably, the preference for modifiable algorithms held even when participants were severely restricted in the modifications they could make (Studies 1-3). In fact, our results suggest that participants’ preference for modifiable algorithms was indicative of a desire for some control over the forecasting outcome, and not for a desire for greater control over the forecasting outcome, as participants’ preference for modifiable algorithms was relatively insensitive to the magnitude of the modifications they were able to make (Study 2). Additionally, we found that giving participants the freedom to modify an imperfect algorithm made them feel more satisfied with the forecasting process, more likely to believe that the algorithm was superior, and more likely to choose to use an algorithm to make subsequent forecasts (Study 3). This research suggests that one can reduce algorithm aversion by giving people some control - even a slight amount - over an imperfect algorithm’s forecast.
More than a quarter century ago, organizational scholars began to explore the implications of prosociality in organizations. Three interrelated streams have emerged from this work, which focus on prosocial motives (the desire to benefit others or expend effort out of concern for others), prosocial behaviors (acts that promote/protect the welfare of individuals, groups, or organizations), and prosocial impact (the experience of making a positive difference in the lives of others through one’s work). Prior studies have highlighted the importance of prosocial motives, behaviors, and impact, and have enhanced our understanding of each of them. However, there has been little effort to systematically review and integrate these related lines of work in a way that furthers our understanding of prosociality in organizations. In this article, we provide an overview of the current state of the literature, highlight key findings, identify major research themes, and address important controversies and debates. We call for an expanded view of prosocial behavior and a sharper focus on the costs and unintended consequences of prosocial phenomena. We conclude by suggesting a number of avenues for future research that will address unanswered questions and should provide a more complete understanding of prosociality in the workplace.
Our data-saturated age enables us to examine our work habits and office quirks with a scrutiny that our cubicle-bound forebears could only dream of. Today, on corporate campuses and within university laboratories, psychologists, sociologists and statisticians are devoting themselves to studying everything from team composition to email patterns in order to figure out how to make employees into faster, better and more productive versions of themselves. ‘‘We’re living through a golden age of understanding personal productivity,’’ says Marshall Van Alstyne, a professor at Boston University who studies how people share information. ‘‘All of a sudden, we can pick apart the small choices that all of us make, decisions most of us don’t even notice, and figure out why some people are so much more effective than everyone else.’’
Yet many of today’s most valuable firms have come to realize that analyzing and improving individual workers — a practice known as ‘‘employee performance optimization’’ — isn’t enough. As commerce becomes increasingly global and complex, the bulk of modern work is more and more team-based. One study, published in The Harvard Business Review last month, found that ‘‘the time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50 percent or more’’ over the last two decades and that, at many companies, more than three-quarters of an employee’s day is spent communicating with colleagues.
We are here because the editor of this magazine asked me, “Can you tell me what code is?”
“No,” I said. “First of all, I’m not good at the math. I’m a programmer, yes, but I’m an East Coast programmer, not one of these serious platform people from the Bay Area.”
I began to program nearly 20 years ago, learning via oraperl, a special version of the Perl language modified to work with the Oracle database. A month into the work, I damaged the accounts of 30,000 fantasy basketball players. They sent some angry e-mails. After that, I decided to get better.
Which is to say I’m not a natural. I love computers, but they never made any sense to me. And yet, after two decades of jamming information into my code-resistant brain, I’ve amassed enough knowledge that the computer has revealed itself. Its magic has been stripped away. I can talk to someone who used to work at Amazon.com or Microsoft about his or her work without feeling a burning shame. I’d happily talk to people from Google and Apple, too, but they so rarely reenter the general population.
There are lots of other neighborhoods, too: There are people who write code for embedded computers smaller than your thumb. There are people who write the code that runs your TV. There are programmers for everything. They have different cultures, different tribal folklores, that they use to organize their working life. If you told me a systems administrator was taking a juggling class, that would make sense, and I’d expect a product manager to take a trapeze class. I’ve met information architects who list and rank their friendships in spreadsheets. Security research specialists love to party.
What I’m saying is, I’m one of 18 million. So that’s what I’m writing: my view of software development, as an individual among millions. Code has been my life, and it has been your life, too. It is time to understand how it all works.
Barbara Grosz has a fantasy that every time a computer scientist logs on to write an algorithm or build a system, a message will flash across the screen that asks, “Have you thought about the ethical implications of what you’re doing?”
Until that day arrives, Grosz, the Higgins Professor of Natural Sciences at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), is working to instill in the next generation of computer scientists a mindset that considers the societal impact of their work, and the ethical reasoning and communications skills to do so.
“Ethics permeates the design of almost every computer system or algorithm that’s going out in the world,” Grosz said. “We want to educate our students to think not only about what systems they could build, but whether they shouldbuild those systems and how they should design those systems.”
At a time when computer science departments around the country are grappling with how to turn out graduates who understand ethics as well as algorithms, Harvard is taking a novel approach.
Do you think you know how to get the best from your people? Or do you know? How do investments in your employees actually affect workforce performance? Who are your top performers? How can you empower and motivate other employees to excel?
Leading-edge companies are increasingly adopting sophisticated methods of analyzing employee data to enhance their competitive advantage. Google, Best Buy, Sysco, and others are beginning to understand exactly how to ensure the highest productivity, engagement, and retention of top talent, and then replicating their successes. If you want better performance from your top employees—who are perhaps your greatest asset and your largest expense—you’ll do well to favor analytics over your gut instincts.
Harrah’s Entertainment is well-known for employing analytics to select customers with the greatest profit potential and to refine pricing and promotions for targeted segments. (See “Competing on Analytics,”HBR January 2006.) Harrah’s has also extended this approach to people decisions, using insights derived from data to put the right employees in the right jobs and creating models that calculate the optimal number of staff members to deal with customers at the front desk and other service points. Today the company uses analytics to hold itself accountable for the things that matter most to its staff, knowing that happier and healthier employees create better-satisfied guests.
When Brian Jensen told his audience of HR executives that Colorcon wasn’t bothering with annual reviews anymore, they were appalled. This was in 2002, during his tenure as the drugmaker’s head of global human resources. In his presentation at the Wharton School, Jensen explained that Colorcon had found a more effective way of reinforcing desired behaviors and managing performance: Supervisors were giving people instant feedback, tying it to individuals’ own goals, and handing out small weekly bonuses to employees they saw doing good things.
Back then the idea of abandoning the traditional appraisal process—and all that followed from it—seemed heretical. But now, by some estimates, more than one-third of U.S. companies are doing just that. From Silicon Valley to New York, and in offices across the world, firms are replacing annual reviews with frequent, informal check-ins between managers and employees.
How We Got Here
Historical and economic context has played a large role in the evolution of performance management over the decades. When human capital was plentiful, the focus was on which people to let go, which to keep, and which to reward—and for those purposes, traditional appraisals (with their emphasis on individual accountability) worked pretty well. But when talent was in shorter supply, as it is now, developing people became a greater concern—and organizations had to find new ways of meeting that need.