Death of the Middle Manager

Has technology made middle managers obsolete?

In the most memorable scene of the classic 1936 silent film “Modern Times,” Charlie Chaplin’s alter ego, the Little Tramp, depicts the quintessential 20th century struggle in a most literal way. As a factory worker trying to keep pace with runaway technology, he frenetically weaves in and out among giant gears, effectively swallowed by machinery, becoming little more than a cog. All the while, he is controlled by a menacing boss, a cipher who appears as a looming face on a screen. That, as Chaplin saw it, was the damaging result of modern industrialization: dehumanized workers reduced to pawns, robbed of initiative and creativity in the service of greater efficiency.

In a recent article in Harvard Business Review, the London Business School professor Lynda Gratton offered a similar viewpoint. The Industrial Revolution, she posited, mechanized work in a way that destroyed the value of craftsmanship and mastery. Today’s technology revolution, however, is restoring those values, she claimed, and by doing so is eliminating the need for an entire class of middle managers who, like Chaplin’s looming boss, are little more than pedantic hall monitors.

“Now technology itself has become the great general manager,” Gratton wrote. “It can monitor performance closely, provide instant feedback, even create reports and presentations. Moreover, skilled teams are increasingly self-managed. That leaves people with general management skills in a very vulnerable position. Plus, thanks to the Internet and search engines, everyone now knows or can know something about everything. There is little competitive advantage in being a jack-of-all-trades when your main competitor might be Wikipedia.”

Adding to the endangerment of the middle-manager species, Gratton contends, is a cultural shift among younger workers in attitudes toward general management. Her research, as well as that of others, shows that so-called Generation Y employees are often dismissive of general managers, whom they see as there simply to keep track of what they do, but who add no insight, creativity or innovation of their own. Younger workers believe that what general managers do, if necessary at all, can be done easily and better by self-managing teams and automated processes. What Generation Y does respect, Gratton adds, is a mentor who demonstrates mastery of his or her craft and can impart it to others.

Gratton’s conclusions are based upon ongoing research that began in October 2009, in which she assembled a consortium of 21 companies and more than 200 executives from around the world to try to better understand the future nature of work. Companies such as Nokia, Nomura, Tata Consulting Services, Shell, Novartis, SAP and World Vision regularly engage in discussion and feedback through shared Web portals, monthly webinars and a series of workshops. They wrestle with such issues as how to manage collaboration in a virtual world, how to build networks and ecosystems to support that collaboration and how to develop talent to best lead those efforts.

In addressing these issues, consortium members have been particularly focused on how roles in organizations are changing or will need to change. What they are seeing, according to Gratton, is a shift in how professional influence and effectiveness are derived: away from personal achievement and competition and toward connectivity, away from an emphasis on roles and toward an emphasis on what you know, away from generalized knowledge and toward specific, deep knowledge. Taken together, Gratton says, these trends sound the death knell of the middle manager.

While the observations of Gratton’s research consortium seem sound, her assumptions about what middle managers really do are debatable. Steven Spear, a senior lecturer at the Sloan School of Management at M.I.T. and author of “The High Velocity Edge,” has taken issue with Gratton’s “narrow definition” of the middle manager’s role as a mere consolidator and conduit of information between the shop floor and senior management. “In most successful organizations, managers are part of a nested, adaptive, learning system,” Spear argued. “Middle managers — agile managers capable of solving local problems locally — can and do play that adaptive role.”

Gratton may also be indulging in a bit of hyperbolic techno-worship when she suggests that software apps and Wiki-pedia — or Twitter, Facebook or Google for that matter — can really replace the active engagement of a live manager. Equating aggregated information with wisdom and experience seems glib and risky, albeit increasingly common these days. In Spear’s view: “The idea that middle managers are a vestige of an era predating sophisticated technology is inaccurate. Yes, one can now use I.T. to gather information and make sense of it through various data processing tools, but bona fide learning is still a human endeavor.”

Commenting on this debate in Financial Times, the business journalist Philip Delves Broughton wrote: “Technology has yet to give chief executives a clear view from top to bottom of their operations. They still depend on managers to tell them what is going on. Professor Spear’s resounding point is that, given how fast business changes these days, human beings remain the most adaptable management tools any executive could want. They can learn, lead, change, haggle, calculate, persuade, emote and inspire. Middle managers will survive because they give a great company its pulse.”

The fact is, good middle managers are in that role precisely because they have achieved a level of mastery that gives them instinct and insight, because they have been there and done that and see its connection to the bigger picture. That is not something that just anyone can bring to the table, even aided by technology.

Gratton is certainly correct about one thing: Advances in information and collaboration technology are exposing managers who have only redundant, superficial or superfluous knowledge. Does that describe middle managers? Yes, some of them — the bad ones. It also describes some subset of senior managers, line workers and salespeople. It even includes some members of Generation Y. The truth is, no functional role or generational cohort has a monopoly on adding value or failing to do so.

Indeed, some believe that focusing on roles is less and less relevant in today’s environment. “This whole issue of the status of middle managers is a red herring,” said Mitch McCrimmon, an independent consultant in executive assessment and coaching. “Management is a process that all can apply; that simply means achieving goals in a way that makes best use of all resources. No doubt we will see variations, some that rely more on self-managing teams, others relying more on roles. Organizations will adapt as they need to in order to meet new challenges.”