Inverting the pyramid

Inverting the pyramid

Inverting the pyramid

Search for the term ‘inverting the pyramid’ and you will find pages devoted to the classic book on football tactics by Jonathan Wilson.

This blog post is not about that.

Dig a little deeper and you will come across the concept of the ‘reverse hierarchy’, where leaders imagine themselves as the support network for customer-facing staff imbued with greater control and responsibility to make them more reactive to customers’ needs.

This blog post is not about that either.

Imagine if something could literally invert the hierarchical model of organisations, leaving fewer people at the bottom than at the top. This is one of the potential consequences of automation.

That’s what this story is about.

Role-related automation risk

The most automatable roles seem to be those lower down the hierarchy: production, logistics, customer service, administration. No role is completely replaceable by machines, but automation can potentially slash the number of people employed in a single role.

In a call centre, this might mean first-line support is automated, leaving humans to manage the automation and handle second-line support — the more complex calls or unusual enquiries. In a factory, the robots might do the making and the humans handle the exceptions. Already in warehouses the machines do the heavy lifting and the humans do the complex packing.

This warehouse robot moves heavy sheets of wood around, allowing more efficient use of space as well as speeding transfer.

The result might be that the human piece of the hierarchy might become inverted: the lower down the hierarchy, the more machines there are, and fewer people.

Augmenting the irreplaceables

Higher up the hierarchy, where human skills are less easily replaced, the ratio of machines to humans might be very different. If the automation model boosts profitability, growing the business might mean recruiting more people at the top — at least in proportion to those roles closer to production and customers that can be scaled with more investment in machines.

Of course you’re unlikely to have many CEOs or FDs, but below that board tier, there might be significant expansion. Yes, US companies may find themselves with even more ‘Vice Presidents’.

The result may look something like the image. A broad base of machine labour at a high ratio of virtual employee (however you might count that — an interesting question in itself) to human. Rising to a wide set of senior humans supported in closer to a 1–1 ratio by machines that augment their capabilities. Above that, the classic pyramid is likely re-established.

Perhaps some organisations already look like this? Perhaps it has only been recognised as more of a flat hierarchy so far.

Either way, it will be interesting to watch.

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This article is by Tom Cheesewright. This post forms part of the Future of Business series. For more posts on this subject, visit the Future of Business page.

Tom Cheesewright

Futurist speaker Tom Cheesewright is one of the UK's leading commentators on technology and tomorrow. Tom has worked with a huge range of organisations across a variety of markets, to help them to see a clear vision of tomorrow, share that vision and respond with agility. Tom draws on his experience to create original, compelling talks that are keyed to the experience of the audience but which surprise and shock with unexpected facts and examples.

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