The Metamorphosis of Management

With the rise of adaptive organisations, and the flattening of hierarchy, the management roles within organisations are coming under threat. Niels Pflaeging claims that management is an zombie technology, and while I agree in the broad thrust of his argument, I think there is slightly more to it than that.

To start with, let’s take a little step back to why we have management in the first place. Caitlin Rosenthal suggests in her book Accounting for Slavery: Masters and Management’ that a number of management concepts were originated during the slave trade where remote owners needed layers of overseers to run, and report on, remote plantations. Surprisingly, when you are forcing people to work without liberty or reward, you need trusted, and paid, people to ensure that they do it. During the industrial revolution, work was divided into deskilled steps so it could be performed by the uneducated masses flocking to the cities from the countryside looking for work. This approach became encoded by Frederick Taylor as scientific management. Interestingly Henry Laurence Gantt, he of the infamous chart, was the son of a slave owner. Gantt apparently disliked the term task’ because of its association with slavery.

The key aspect of management was the separation of thinking and doing. You want workers with nimble fingers or a strong back who follow orders.
Managers were there to design and improve the process and decide what needed doing and when. In essence the idea is to strap a brain to a production process carried out by lowly (or un-) paid people not intended to think.

This worked due to the asymmetric power between managers and workers. Managers tended to have more education, access to information, plans, weaponry, and links to the ruling classes.

What we have seen over recent years, however, is that machines have taken over the truly mindless tasks, meaning that people are employed to add non-mindless input - they need their own brains. To support this, more and more people are gaining higher levels of education. On top of all that are computers and the internet making unimaginable amounts of information available globally and instantaneously.

Now that machines are doing the repetitive mindless work, and the work force is smart, educated and connected, it becomes hard to see where strapping an additional brain to the mix adds any value. Emerging approaches to structuring and running organisations are based on self-organising teams, and don’t have people management roles automatically built in. Computers and robots are handling more and more of complicated work, leaving a high skilled workforce to focus on the complex work.

So does this spell the end of management and managers? As ever, I believe that the answer is yes and no.

Hopefully the period of managing people is over, leadership is still needed, but people management is not. However, things without brains still need management, things like buildings, contracts, stock or raw materials. If there is a sufficient demand for that management skill, which can’t be handled as part of other roles, then dedicated managers may be needed for these types of things.

So we are currently at this shift, from the management of people, to the management of things. I happen to think this isn’t the end of the management journey, I think managers’ will follow the path taken by computers’.

Until the 1960s computers’ were people who were good at mathematics. Large organisations and places like NASA would employ people, many of which were women, to sit in offices preparing figures such as return on investment, projections and flight paths. Over quite a short space of time, starting with the military machines like Colossus and ENIAC, and then business machines with LEO (Lyons Electronic Office) in 1951 their jobs, and name, were taken over by electronic calculating machines. This was possible because mathematics follows rules that can be encoded and never vary.

We are now seeing the rise of these electronic computers applying artificial intelligence to interpret rules more broadly; you can now hire computer lawyers, and use computers to diagnose illnesses. Blockchain technology looks like it could revolutionise contracts in a similar way.

With these rapidly progressing technologies, I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to imagine a time when the management of things is performed by machines rather than people. When my children enter the workforce, referring to the manager’ maybe a reference to a program running in the cloud rather than a person.

Admittedly, managers these days tend to do more than simply task people. This might include strategy and performance assessment.

I think the role of a traditional manager will be unpacked.

  • Operations will be distributed or automated
  • Strategy will be distributed, but with some people specifically looking at the organisational direction
  • People will be split. Organisations will still have people and talent specialists and they could help with the pastoral side. The assessment and incentive side, is increasingly being handled by other specialists in organisations. One advantage of this is it tends to lessen the politics, as sucking up to people and favoritism have less impact.

To me, the manager journey is:

Figure 1: People, Things, Automation

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