The future of the Middle Manager: sense making in a social media age

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There is a debate over the future of middle managers. (See for example Lynda Gratton’s article) at its heart, the question is whether middle manager still have a role. If their tasks are changed or replaced by technology, are they still needed?  The case against middle managers is that technological changes their role to the point where they are not needed (Drucker The coming of the new organisation ( )  I argue, however, that this approach to middle managers misunderstands their role in the changing future of work.  Although technology, the web, social media, micro blogging sites, may change their tasks, their role is enhanced by the new technology.  To be sure, there is less need for numbers, but their role remains essential.

The future of the middle manager is also the future of work. (See the work led by Gratton  As work changes, because of technology and societal changes, management will change. We are moving away from the traditional view of the middle manager as the general manager. (See Uyterhoevan’s now out-dated classic), Work now requires the middle manager to be a “networked sense maker”. To be fair to Uyterhoevan he did recognise this idea. His article addressed the middle manager distinct role in working to translating strategy into practice. He did not go so far as Balogun and Johnson to develop how this role relies upon sense making. The middle manager role will stay in any organisation because someone will have to translate the senior management’s visions and priorities and turns them into practical activities, plans, and goals.  Here is how Balogun and Johnson describe the issue when considering change initiatives in an organisation.

As they seek to put the change plans of their seniors into action, their everyday experiences of the actions and behaviours of others, and the stories, gossip, jokes, conversations and discussions they share with their peers about these experiences, shape their interpretations of what they should be doing. Change interventions and plans are translated into action through the medium of these inter-recipient processes, turning top-down intended change into an emergent and unpredictable process. (p.2)

In the past, the middle manager would have been defined by their place in the hierarchy, now; instead, their position is more fluid because it depends on that sense-making role.  In large organisations, there will be a tension between the formal and the informal roles. Formally, someone may be a middle manager because the organisational structure shows them to be one. However, in the informal structure, where social media allows informal (and formal) networks to emerge a relatively junior officer, may be the “middle manager” because they are adept at translating the vision.  occupies that nodal role by “making sense” of the vision and translating it, has the de facto middle manager role.

Yammer is a platform for this type of approach.  Cap Gemini use it in this way as Senior Managers analyse the traffic on it to see how their messages are being received.  As a micro blogging platform, Yammer offers what Drucker described as the “information organisation”.  However, the information organisation is not without its risks. The risk is from the resistance of the formal hierarchy to the opportunity created by micro blogs. To cut or remove that resistance, senior managers have support and use the platform.  They can use it to clarify their message and send the outlines of their programmes.  By doing this, they will not replace middle managers, but better equip them to translate the vision into practical frontline work goals. Such an approach can support the formal hierarchy and still encourage the micro-blogs to give information to senior managers. For a success story, see Capgemini (

Where organisations will get this horribly wrong is where senior managers simply give their vision through the formal structure.  What this does is tell the organisation that the informal networks are not important even though most staff use them.  Moreover, it privileges those who are exploiting the informal network for their own ends.  If the rest of the organisation does not understand the vision and how they work in it, they depend on a fractured informal network controlled by information gatekeepers.  In turn, the senior managers become frustrated because they do not understand why their change initiatives are not working the way they intended.  At the same time, the message is fractured to the frontline staff.   Where middle managers are good at redistributing the message, they will have a better working relationship.  By contrast, units that do not have access to that information remain vulnerable to the unintended consequences.

Instead of harnessing the informal network, senior managers who rely only upon the formal hierarchy force units to rely upon a fractured informal network.  Within a fractured informal network, the quality and quantity of information is reduced.  The frontline staff cannot rely upon their middle managers to “make sense” of what the organisation is doing and why. Moreover, the excluded will turn increasingly to the informal structure further exacerbating the unintended consequences as set out by Balogun and Johnson.

Even though Drucker thought that the new organisation would cut the role of the middle management role, they continue to have a role. He was right about how information is changing structures and how decisions are made. However, what he did not consider fully is how important the human element remains in management.   An update on Drucker’s view of the new organisation can be seen in Shah’s article.  Shah compared the different roles of a manager with and without the support of social media technology.  He found that there is still much that remains available to managers in their role.

Shah’s article also reminds us that we have to look beyond the theoretical discussions and communication issues relate to the practical issue of middle management.  A recent study, by the management firm Knox D’Arcy showed that “active management” is still in high demand. Too often, they argue, that time is wasted and managers rely upon “passive management” instead of setting targets and follow up with their staff.

The report was focused on local government, but it had a message for managers in general.  Despite Drucker’s argument against middle managers, technology can only substitute for them up to a point. There remains a direct and immediate need for active management.

“An active management style is clearly a more difficult way to manage because it requires the clear establishment of performance expectations and boundaries, the confrontation of underperformance, the denunciation and elimination of unproductive activity and the objective reporting of performance and productivity to drive decision making.” P.6

Even with a workflow system or electronic monitoring, the senior management is not going to be able to take the time to manage directly their frontline staff in a large organisation.  In smaller organisation, the units and teams may be organised by expertise and driven by their own agreed incentives.  However, most work is not structured that way. Therefore, there is still the need for the manager to maintain performance and translate vision into work programmes and goals. However, the issue may be in how those managers are trained and whether they have the skills.   As the D’Arcy report argues, managers are not being trained appropriately in the core skills they need to deliver active management. As a result, they do not get the best from their teams.  In that situation, it is understandable if senior manager seek to automate the workflow or outsource at lower labour costs. However, that only displaces the problem.

In the end, the role of the middle manager is here to stay even in the social media age. There are two related reasons for this.  First, there is a need for middle managers to translate and send the senior management messages to their units and teams.  By doing this, they can help make sure the work is organised appropriately.  At the same time, active management requires middle managers to work closely with their teams and adjust their work programmes to improve performance and deliver against the agreed goals and targets.

In that sense, middle managers will not disappear and no amount of technology is going to replace that role.

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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