Once upon a time, “executives” held all the information. But the digital revolution means that managers must now derive their legitimacy from human relationships.
The digital revolution has turned businesses into laboratories. Their inner workings have been entirely overhauled, and the new world order has already taken its toll on one group of victims – middle managers are losing their bearings. Middle managers have traditionally been the people within an organisation who hold and communicate information – a sort of symbolic power. Yet the advent of mass electronic communications has called into question the very purpose of this once essential cog in the wheel of the hierarchical organisation. With turnkey enterprise social networking services such as Yammer and Slack, senior managers can now communicate directly with staff, without the need for a formal intermediary. Similarly, workers can speak directly to top management without having to go through a middleman. This upheaval has broken down the invisible barrier of “status” and done away with the “privileges” that each link in the communication chain once enjoyed.
It’s hard to assess just how deep this impact goes. Are yesterday’s managers on the way out as some people, such as proponents of holacracy*, suggest? Not necessarily. Do they need to rethink the status quo? Absolutely.
In some quarters, it was believed that the digital revolution would “dehumanise” social relationships. Yet the current trend shows that the opposite is happening – these technologies often have the effect of improving “human relations”. And here lies the challenge facing middle managers: to focus on the human aspect of their role. Yet this is a not unsubstantial task for managers who have traditionally derived authority and legitimacy from their knowledge and expertise.
If middle managers can make this transition, they will no longer be seen as the “boss”. Yet they will still need to embody two other equally important roles: “leader” and “coach”. As a leader, it will be their duty to summarise corporate strategy, explain the reasons behind action and drive their team forward. And as a coach, they must help each and every staff member to grow and flourish. This new role also aligns with the needs of their staff members – Generation Y, a generation whose members take their cues from their relationship with apps and digital solutions, and who expect the same from their managers.
The digital revolution is forcing companies to develop new business models. The same rule must therefore apply to their structure and governance. The advent of collective intelligence and collaborative working practices has eroded respect for hierarchical structures. Managers must therefore seek out new sources of legitimacy, focusing their efforts on building trust and placing their conduct on the same level as their capabilities.
At a time when people use Twitter or Periscope to post content and voice their opinions in their private lives, organisations must address a similar challenge in the business world.
Managing Partner, Alter&Go Group