Will Automation Shrink the C-Suite? Or Lead to More Democratization?

Will Automation Shrink the C-Suite? Or Lead to More Democratization?

A study McKinsey conducted on automation last year caused a bit of a stir in finding that “as many as 45 percent of the activities individuals are paid to perform can be automated by adapting currently demonstrated technologies,” and that even jobs long considered automation-proof could have much of their work done by machines in the near future. Even chief executives are not immune, the study found: Robots and algorithms could do the work that currently takes up 25 percent of a CEO’s time. In light of that finding and other recent changes in the way corporations operate, Liz Alexander at Fast Company wonders whether the C-suite takes too much for granted in terms of needing humans to do their jobs.

On the one hand, she argues, decentralized and democratized workplaces operating on models like holacracy or the Decentralized Autonomous Organization could make executive functions less relevant and even obsolete—and a prevailing sentiment of anti-elitism could do a lot to boost the popularity of these new models. On the other, maybe the “executive” skill set just isn’t as useful as we’ve been led to believe:

While a recent Hewlett Packard Enterprise study found that 79% of teenagers today want to lead a company by the time they reach 29, it’s genuinely worth wondering what kinds of C-suite roles might be left for them by then. After all, the belief that certain problems required “an executive type of mind” was itself the product of a distinct historical moment. In the early 20th century, the management theorist William Henry Leffingwell applied his day’s Taylorist obsession with efficiency to the practice of office management.

Workforce automation, wrote Leffingwell, would enable the “scientific manager” to earn a salary by freeing up time for handling onlyexceptional cases, rather than constantly sorting out routine, day-to-day processes. And despite a lively and growing debate around automation, what few still seem reluctant to question in any practical sense is how much better the “executive mind” really is at even those higher-order challenges Leffingwell alluded to.

To support her point, Alexander points to several other studies finding that top-level decision makers are often not as good as they think they are at strategic planning, financial management, or hiring—largely due to their all-too-human biases. It’s a provocative thought experiment: If senior executives aren’t really exceptional at the things they’re paid a lot of money to do, will those roles still exist in the workplace of the future? And if not, what will replace them?