I wrote a column for the Harvard Business Review this month in which I argued that middle management as a role is rapidly disappearing. Readers of my blog will have seen some aspects of my ideas played out over the last year. The technology revolution has indeed brought us a lot—dramatic improvement in what we know about customers and how we interact with them, markedly better information to make decisions, the ability to work through virtual teams scattered around the globe. But its unseen legacy might be something much more fundamental: It has changed the very nature of how people work. One consequence seems clear. The classic job of the middle manager will soon disappear.
Here are the four reasons why I think the disappearance is on the cards:
- Technology has become the great general manager. It can monitor performance closely, provide instant feedback, even create reports and presentations. When technology can play much of the role of the manager – why have one?
- Skilled team members are increasingly self-managed. That’s not to say they need a team leader – but this is likely to be taken from a member of the team who is highly skilled and it could well be a rotating role. So when teams can manage themselves – what can a general manager add?
- Attitudes toward management have also changed. As my research makes clear, Gen Y workers see no value in reporting to someone who simply keeps track of what they do, when much of that can be done by themselves, their peers, or a machine. What they do value is mentoring and coaching from someone they respect. Someone, in other words, who is a master—not a general manager.
- It was possible in the past to manage ‘intuitively’ and for good management skills to come as part of the whole ‘decent person’ angle. Now management is fiendishly difficult – particularly if people are located virtually across the globe. These situations take extreme specialist skills to lead.
That leaves people with general management skills in a very vulnerable position. Their value has often come from networks and abilities built up in one company, but as time with a single company decreases, such value looks increasingly non-transferrable. Plus, thanks to the Internet and search engines, everyone now knows or can know about everything. There is little competitive advantage in being a jack-of-all-trades when your main competitor might be Wikipedia.
The argument has created a rather lively response. Some picked up on the point that the role of the manager is to coach and mentor. But I don’t think it is simply to coach and mentor. In a world of deeper and more specialist skills the management role is nearer to the medieval ‘master’ role of skill development. To carve a management role over the next two decades will require two crucial investments.
First, to acquire and build knowledge or competencies that are valuable and rare—what I would call your “signature.” Without it you will become invisible, no longer propped up by the trappings of managerial life. Then to develop new areas of proficiency, or move into adjacencies, throughout your working life to keep your management skills fresh.
To paraphrase from my colleague Professor Rob Goffee – ‘why would anyone want to be managed by you?’