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February 20, 2014
Redefining middle management in a digital world
By: Mark McDonald

Technology is antagonistic to middle management. The reverse is often true as well. It is time to look beyond the past and conceive of a new relationship between the two, particularly in the digital world. Why? Because the dynamics of digital demands a new style of leadership that middle management is well positioned to deliver if middle managers would only stop being administrators and become real managers.

Middle management is a broad category fitting between the level below executive and above first line supervisor. Middle managers form the bulk of what some would call corporate bureaucracy. But are they? How does digital change the role and importance of middle management?

Middle management has been the punching bag for business theory for a long time. They are a focus of ‘streamlining’ operations. Business process re-engineering busts the silos where middle management lives. Enterprise software disrupts middle management’s stock and trade—performance reporting and management. With positions rooted in the current state, it is easy to see middle management as the barrier for change and therefore a barrier for digital business.

Now comes digital and middle managers have not seen anything yet. If IT technology has displaced middle managers in the information flow, digital obliterates the hierarchy they call home.

Organizational theorists study the role of middle management in communicating and coordinating operations across the modern corporation. Middle management was the human conduit in the organization. What good are human conduits when technology can place the same information in everyone’s hands simultaneously?

The answer to that question lies in understanding how technology changes are influencing management and the organization.

  • Technology pushes out inefficiency. Digital technology is no exception. Analytics, social media-based collaboration, big data, mobility, and sensors all operating on the cloud create new capabilities for collaboration and control. If middle managers are a cost, then strike one.

  • Technology influences organization structure, particularly when paired with new business ideas. Digital technology features should lead to an organization where middle management is replaced with performance transparency, social coordination, purpose driven cultures, meritocracy and democratized decision-making. If middle managers are no longer needed, strike two.

  • Technology presumes change, and change requires leadership at all levels. Leadership used to come exclusively from the executive ranks. Middle managers are seen as the bastions of the status quo, those most threatened by change. So, strike three?

Before you call middle management out, I believe that the future of middle management in the digital age is in a unique style of leadership based on the changes created by being digital.

From administering in the middle of the ladder to leading at center of everything

Middle managers must change their position in a digital organization or risk a new type of redundancy – situational redundancy. This requires a new attitude for managers to move from being administrators to leaders. Digital requires managers move from being in the middle of a hierarchy, managing a fixed team of people and activities – to the middle of a network managing flexible resources to achieve customer and company outcomes.

Success in middle management evolves with digital from counting the number of people you manage to the span of your influence, involvement and leadership in achieving results. Fortunately for middle managers these new measures fit well with advances in analytics based reporting and performance management.

Making the move from administration to leadership changes the nature of middle managements role and power. Middle managers stand to gain much from digital as the pace of change, complexity and agility requirements changes the nature of management’s leadership power - and this can be significantly greater if they play it right.

Many middle managers are ready, if their executive teams are ready

The future of middle management lies in leadership rather than administration. Too often middle managers don’t manage, they administer. If you find middle management a barrier to change, reactionary, negative, or heavily invested in the status quo, then you have found a cadre of administrators not managers.

It is easy to call for the end of middle management, particularly when technology disrupts their core administration role. We need fewer administrators and more mangers with the ability to bridge between strategic objectives and tactical transformation. That is the goal, digital management.

Not just any middle manager will survive in a digital world. The middle manager of the future is one that has the following characteristics:

  1. She knows how the company wins at a conceptual and customer level. Making money is one thing, knowing how and why you make money gives you the ability to make even more.

  2. He recognizes the difference between critical and commodity capabilities. He knows to raise the efficiency of commodity capabilities and concentrate on the effectiveness of the capabilities critical to success.

  3. She sees technology through an information rather than application lens. She uses that perspective to raise the ability of her teams and staff to work smarter with information rather than working harder to get around application limitations.

  4. He connects technology investments with tangible outcomes at the customer and operations level. The edge rules in these considerations because value is created at the edge even though it may be ‘controlled’ by the center.

  5. Together they work in concert to meet specific challenges and customer situations. They recognize adapting to create customer value requires handling their various needs rather than harassing customers to fit into a standard solution.

These factors differentiate administrators who hold the title manager from leaders who are called manager.

Strong leaders in strong roles

Retaining old management models in a world of new technology reduces agility, raises anxiety and grows complexity – three things that compromise value in a digital world. Today’s executives can take comfort from an approach that involves outing new digital things into old frameworks and business models. They feel good because they feel that they are taking action. Unfortunately for many they are putting a fresh coat of technology paint on persistent problems.

There is a silent crisis in most organizations – too many administrators and not enough real managers. Managers in the sense of direct leaders close enough to be grounded in reality and clear enough to be willing to see a path ahead. That type of leadership is in short supply in many organizations and is about to become even more scarce as digital accelerates customer expectations, the pace of business change and the diversity of those changes.

The digital world is simply too dynamic, driven and diverse to be contained for long in old management models and organizational structures. That can be hard to see, but if you are creating more cross business unit groups for collaboration, concierge service or coordination, then you already feel the pain. The challenge is to find the right medicine and part of that lies with a different view of your management ranks starting with the way you see middle managers.

Administrators? Sure today that is often their role, but not for long given analytics, big data and other digital trends.

Leaders? Yes because they have the proximity to the problem and the sense of strategy to create and sustain solutions.

Really? Yes because without strong leaders in new roles the organization creates a hole in the middle that no technology can fill.

Death to the middle manager as administrator - long live the manager as leader.

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