Technology will not render managers obsolete — but they will need to be more skilled than ever before.
Editor’s Note: This article is one of a special series of 14 commissioned essays MIT Sloan Management Review is publishing to celebrate the launch of our new Frontiers initiative. 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. In the process, I have written two books describing some of the ways that 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 manager’s role as a coordinator of work would come under increasing pressure. Constant improvements in robotics and machine learning, in conjunction with the automation of routine tasks, make management a more unclear practice. What is a manager, and what is it that managers do? Are we witnessing the end of management?
Next, I could see an inevitable shift in which a parent-to-child way of looking at the relationship between the manager and his or her team would be questioned and ultimately superseded by an adult-to-adult form. The nexus of this more adult relationship concerns how commitments are made and how information is shared. When technology enables many people to have more information about themselves and others, it’s easier to take a clear and more mature view of the workplace. Self-assessment tools, particularly those that enable people to diagnose what they do and how they do it, can help employees pinpoint their own productivity issues. They have less need for the watchful eyes of a 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 stronger lateral forms of coaching? Moreover, technology-enabled social networking is capable of creating robust and realistic maps of influence and power — so no more hiding behind fancy job titles.
Finally, the rise of platform-based businesses such as Uber Technologies Inc. has everyone excited about platforms and how they can create a fertile arena for new businesses to be built while also acting as a conduit for flexible ways of working.
What is the role of management in all of this?
From those four predictions, one could easily 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, we seem to be witnessing the rise of a more skilled form of it. Over the last seven years, I have directed the “Future of Work Consortium,” a group that has involved executives from 60 multinational companies from all over the world and from different sectors. Through workshops, focus groups, and an annual survey, we have followed the impact that technology is having on work and management.
For most of our participants, the surprise is that so little has changed over the last five years in the way they work. 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 indicate that the real positive impact of technology has been on the way they run their everyday life rather than on their productivity at work. Inevitably, this will change in the next five years — but how will management use new technology tools?
We asked these executives to consider how they see the future and to assess the current capability of their corporations. From this, we were able to identify the “future risk factors” — those aspects of the corporation that will 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 multigenerational groups (particularly with regard to differences in technology use); and 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; and 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, how to build rapid trust, coach, empathize, and inspire) and management practices (for example, team formation, objective setting, and conflict resolution). It is these managerial skills and practices that will be augmented by technology over the coming years in ways we may not yet have grasped — but that will emerge over time.
This article was originally published on July 27, 2016, with the title, “Technology and the ‘End of Management’.” It has been updated to reflect edits made for its inclusion in our Fall 2016 print edition.