Technology and the “End of Management”
By Lynda Gratton
No, software will not render managers obsolete, but you will need to be more skilled than ever before.
Editor’s Note: This is the fifth in a special series of commissioned essays MIT Sloan Management Review will be publishing in Frontiers over the Spring and Summer of 2016. Each essay gives the author’s response to this question:
“Within the next five years, how will technology change the practice of management in a way we have not yet witnessed?”
I’ve been thinking about technology and management for over a decade and in the process have written two books describing some of the ways the practice of management will respond to rapid technological innovations. Looking back, I made four predictions about management and technology:
First, it was clear to me that the role of “management” as a coordinator of work would come under increasing pressure. The constant march of robotics and machine learning and the “hollowing out of work” makes management a more and more unclear practice. What is a manager, and what is it that they do? Are we witnessing the end of management?
Next, I could see the inevitable shift from a parent-to-child way of looking at the relationship between the manager and their team being questioned and ultimately superseded by an adult-to-adult form. The nexus of this more adult relationship relates to how commitments are made and how information is shared. When technology enables many people to have more information about themselves and others, then it’s easier to take a clear and more adult view of the world. Self-assessment, particularly those that enable people to diagnose what they do and how they do it, can help them pinpoint their own productivity issues. They have little need for the watching eyes of the manager.
Third, it seemed to me obvious that technology would tip the axis of power from the vertical to the horizontal. Why learn from a manager when peer-to-peer feedback and learning can create such stronger lateral paths of coaching? Moreover, technology enabled social networking are capable of creating more robust and realistic maps of influence and power — so no more hiding behind fancy job titles.
Finally, the rise of Uber has everyone excited about platforms and how they can create a fertile place for new businesses to be built and act as a conduit for flexible working.
What is the role of management in all of this?
So from those four predictions, it would be wise to imagine that the “the end of management” is in sight — crushed by peer feedback, pushed out by specialist roles, disintermediated by powerful platforms, and exposed by social network analysis.
And yet, it seems that the current reality is a great deal more complex. Rather than seeing the end of management, it seems to me that the rise of a more skilled form of management is taking its place. Over the last seven years, I have directed the “Future of Work Consortium,” which has involved executives from 60 multinational companies from all over the world and from different sectors. In workshops, focus groups, and through an annual survey, we have followed the impact that technology has had on work and management.
For most people, the surprise is that the way they work has changed so little in the last five years. In fact, they report that their use of technology in their personal and home life has far exceeded their experience of technology at work. Many report that the real positive impact of technology has been on how they run their everyday life rather than making them more productive at work. Inevitably, this will change in the next five years — but how will management use this technology?
We ask these executives to consider how they see the future and to assess the current capability of the corporation. From this, we were able to identify the “future risk factors” — the aspects of the corporations that would be important in the future, but are currently poorly executed. The same top risks came out every year: how to manage virtual teams; how to manage in multi-generation groups (particularly with regard to differential use of technology); how to support rapid knowledge flows across business units.
Notice what all three areas of risk have in common: They are all fundamentally about management. But this is a very complex form of management — managing virtually rather than face to face; managing when the group is diverse rather than homogenous; managing when the crucial knowledge flows are across groups rather than within. These are highly skilled roles in terms of both managerial capabilities (for example, to build rapid trust, coach, empathize, and inspire) and management practices (for example, team formation, objective setting, conflict resolution). It is these managerial skills and practices that will be augmented by technology over the coming years in ways we may have not yet grasped but which will emerge, just as the use of personal technology has emerged.