Constructing Autonomous Systems

Accepting that a “black box” approach to autonomy is unacceptable, we need to plan an autonomous system carefully, and construct an autonomy architecture, where decision-making is located within the appropriate person or machine.

An analogy can be seen in human organisations, such as the companies, government departments, schools, clubs and universities that we all participate or work in. In all these management authority is delegated in a structured way. Take as an example a small manufacturing company. Here the Company Board determines the strategy, e.g. “We will focus on expanding sales of our premium office furniture in the North American market this year, and we want to increase our sales there by 30%”.  The Board then provides the General Manager with this target (or goal) and an appropriate budget and corresponding management authority with which to achieve it.

Having received this target and delegated authority, the General Manager determines the operational goals and the plan to achieve them (i.e. the annual Business Plan), determines how the various departments need to contribute to meeting the goal, and then delegates targets appropriate to the capabilities of each particular unit. An appropriate level of management authority is provided to the various functional unit Managers (e.g. Sales, Manufacturing, Purchasing, Dispatch, Customer Support).

At this point there will be discussion and negotiation as to how these delegations will work and adjustments to the goals and processes will be made.  For example a manager with an effective record of managing Customer Support would be given a larger degree of management autonomy than perhaps a deputy manager standing in for a period, or a person new to the role.  Consequently the degree of delegated authority is not “cast in stone”, but may alter according to circumstances.

Each Manager is then in a position to ensure that his or her functional unit delivers that unit’s contribution to achieve the overall business goal. This leaves the General Manager with a clear desk and unencumbered by detail is ready to deal with exceptions or problems raised by the managers as they encounter changed conditions or difficulties in performing their various roles.

The majority of successful human organisations combine three key factors: clear high-level direction, effective delegation and good communications. The more that authority can be delegated to the operational levels the more effective and flexible the organisation becomes. In this way problems and unexpected events can be dealt with immediately and without recourse to higher levels in the organisation.

In addition, successful organisations also have clear processes and means for escalating problems when they impact the organisation more widely. The challenge is to combine the effectiveness of delegated decision-making with the ability to rapidly escalate the problem as far as necessary as the circumstances demand.

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