The manager’s role is changing. The new organisation, connected and networked, requires managers to deal with internal and external issues. The required skill set is changing. In the past, the focus may have been on service delivery based on top down management. The work would have been in silos. Today, social media and the increasing emphasis on interconnected work place means those work silos are collapsing. Instead, the managers are now more “sense makers” within the organisation. Their work requires an enhanced understanding of what the organisation is doing, the context within which it works, and how the work relates to the customers across the organisation.
Middle managers but not as we know them.
Within the organisation, the middle manager will continue to connect the senior management’s vision and plans to front-line staff delivering the work. In that role, they will work increasingly within an explicit network. They will be expected to have networking skills to share ideas and information across their networked. Information hoarding and need to know information systems will not succeed. Just as in the past, the manager will translate the senior management’s work into action plans and work packages that will guide the organisation’s daily work. However, what is different now, in the social media age, is that the manager will increasingly have to “make sense” of the strategic plans provided by the senior management against the internal and external events and information. The middle manager will not be able to wait for the next corporate management team (CMT) meeting to deal with an emerging situation. Instead, they will have to “make sense” of the senior management plans and act accordingly. At the same time, they will also have to make sense of the work for their teams. They will not be able to cascade the CMT briefing and expect their work to be done. Instead, they will need to translate it and help their teams make sense of it against the current corporate climate.
In a hierarchy the middle manager is a link between the strategic objectives and the daily work that delivers a service. The networked middle manager has the same role, but it is different. As a “networked sense maker”, they translates visions and priorities into action plans. They are not passively receiving the plans or ideas. They are “making sense” of the plans and translating them into work. They will make sense of external events and deal with external actors without waiting for the CMT to set a corporate line on the idea. The new middle manager will have to make sense of the situation. To make sense of the situation, they will rely more on the network than the hierarchy.
The future of the middle manager is also the future of work. In that sense, the hierarchy will remain, but it will only have a specialised function and not a central role. Instead, the manager will work within a networked hierarchy. As work is changing so is the future of the organisation. In the past, we may have been comfortable with a centralized command and control decision-making process. Today, the work environment has changed. Middle managers have to deal with unpredictable situations. In this role, the manager’s everyday experiences of the actions and behaviours of others will shape their understanding of what needs to be done. The stories, gossip, jokes, conversations and discussions we have within our network, our peers, will shape our understanding of what we should be doing. In that sense, the network is also a conversation. The networked conversation turns the top-down intended change, the hierarchy, into an emergent and unpredictable (networked) process. The manager work creating a coherent set of structured conversations within teams to explore and harness the opportunities.
The networked organisation does not have information gatekeepers.
The networked organisation uses information sharing to succeed. By contrast, a hierarchy is marked by information hoarding and a need to know culture. The gatekeepers hoard or control information. They act as institutional chokepoints. They limit the information being shared in the organisation. They also control access to senior managers. The senior managers become reliant on the gatekeepers because they are the only source of information. Frontline staff will not understand the senior manager’s vision. The frontline then depends on the informal network controlled by the gatekeepers. The senior managers will become frustrated because they will not understand why their change initiatives are not working as intended. They know something is wrong on the frontlines. They will see more complaints. They may even reorganise fix the problem. They will not succeed because gatekeepers will remain. The senior managers will not realize that the lack of information encourages passive management and passive employees. The frontline officers will have to rely on fractured information networks controlled by the gatekeepers.
In a networked organisation, the middle manager shares information. They are a conduit not a chokepoint. In this role, they will help people “make sense” of the organisations’ vision. They will not hoard information because their success comes from sharing. They know they need to share information to translate the senior management’s vision into a work programme. At the same time, the networked manager will have a different view of managing staff. They will not rely on passive management. Unlike a hierarchy where passive management is encouraged, a networked organisation requires information sharing and active management.
The networked organisation uses active managers.
An active manager will use constructive conversations to challenge staff. The goal is to create collaborative solution so that staff understand what they are doing and why they are doing it. Active management skills are in high demand by public and private sector organisations because active managers set targets and follow up with their staff. The study showed “passive management” wasted resources and opportunities. Hierarchical organisations were more likely to use passive management. Most organisations, in particular public sector organisations, are hierarchical. They rely on passive management. In the time of austerity, they need to develop networked active management. The active management style is distinctive. The active manager will establish clearly what type of performance is required from each team. An active manager will confront under performance. They will have the conversations need to improve performance. When they find unproductive activity, they will challenge it and change it. An active management system thrives on objective performance reporting. The performance figures are not massaged or managed. Instead, performance and productivity information is shared so that everyone understands why decisions are being made.
Two tasks to create the active networked manager.
For an organisation to develop middle managers, they will need to complete two interrelated tasks. First, the middle managers have to know and understand the senior management priorities. The senior managers cannot simply set a plan and assume that it will be followed. Instead, they have to develop the plan with a networked conversation so that the middle managers understand what they are doing and why. Once that is done, the middle manager, as a networked manager, can translate the understanding into work for our teams and units. Second, middle managers will require training in active management skills. This is more than being taught “performance management” or being told what the organisation’s approach to performance management. Instead, it is teaching managers to be sense makers and understand how and why they need to make networked conversations. The networked conversations will help managers to work closely with their teams. Through active management, managers can adjust their work programmes to improve performance and deliver against the agreed goals and targets. At the same time, we can make sense of, and therefore manage, the change and uncertainty that comes with the future of work.
Work and organisations are changing. The future is networked. A networked organisation will rely on active managers. They will succeed with networked conversations that challenge and change performance. If an organisation relies on passive management and hierarchical communication with fractured information networks, it will fail. If you cannot change the organisation from within, the market (or the government) will change them from the outside.
Is your organisation active or passive? Is it networked or hierarchical? Are you ready to have the constructive conversation to make the changes in your organisation?
- What you allow to interrupt you defines your priorities (thoughtmanagement.org)
- If Self-Management Is Such a Great Idea, Why Aren’t More Companies Doing It? (forbes.com)
Great post Lawrence. I agree that middle management is more “networked” as you call it. I call it leading across or peer leadership. It’s a bit of an ongoing negotiation to reach win-win-win for all the related parties. Influence with peers is a must.
I’d also use a slightly different term for guidelines from senior management. I think “priorities” as you call them aren’t deep enough. If senior management wants successful, effective middle managers, they must personify values. Those values, the real makeup of the organization is something tangible and middle managers gravitate toward them, whether they’re spoken and defined or if they’re unspoken and vague. Unclear values create confusion on the part of middle management. Many organizations that aren’t happy with their middle managers often have vague, poorly defined values.
Thanks for the great post and the tweet directing me here. Mike…
Thanks for the positive and helpful comments. I just missed the idea of values. You are absolutely, this deepens the idea and draws out the point that we connect emotionally and ethically to our work. If we are not working within a system that supports our values, then we are not going to be engaged. Where the values are confused the managers, senior or middle, will be confused.
I would be interested in how you explore values and how those are embedded within the organisation.
Good post. I question the difference between a senior manager and a middle manager. Should they have different perspectives or different levels of granularity? My view is that managers are there to create an environment in which their teams can flourish and so agree with your thoughts on command and control but when it comes to performance management you know that I have grave concerns over traditional approaches such as setting targets and managing individual objectives. My preference leans much more towards managing the understanding of your business flows and demand and this requires individuals to understand their place and role in the context of the organisation rather than to out-perform their colleagues. Point taken though, a key role of a manager is to communicate and network.
Thanks for the comment, you draw out an excellent point in that I was not clear whether there is a difference of degree or kind between senior and middle mangers. I assumed a clean break, but you are correct, they have similar roles, even if the granularity is different. I like your point about managing the understanding which is related to, but deeper, than making sense. I think we need to see more management for understanding rather than “performance” or “profit”.
The challenge, as I see it, will be to develop the ability to develop understanding and network and communicate while delivering the work. The different parts can be brought together but it will take a different approach to how managers are trained.
Thanks again for the positive comment.
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