Managers: an endangered species?

Lynda Gratton examines technology’s impact on the traditional managerial role


Rapid technological change has led some people to ask whether we’re witnessing the end of management. I don’t think so. What we’re actually seeing is the rise of a more skilled form of management. 

Today’s great managers excel at building trust rapidly, coaching, empathising and inspiring their people. They are able to build effective teams, to set clear and achievable objectives and to resolve conflicts. These management capabilities and practices will in time be aided by technology in ways we can’t yet foresee. What is certain is that the manager’s role will become more highly skilled and more essential than ever before. 

Over the last seven years, I have directed the Future of Work Consortium, a group involving executives from 60 multinational companies globally and from different sectors. Through workshops, focus groups and an annual survey, we’ve tracked the impact that technology is having on work and management.

For most of our participants, what’s surprising is that little has changed in the way they work. They report that, so far, technology has had a far greater effect on their personal and home life than on their work life. 

Future risk factors for managers

But how will management use new technology tools? My consortium asked the executives to consider how they see the future and to assess the current capability of their organisations. 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 top risks managers identify are always the same: how to manage virtual teams, how to manage diverse, multigenerational groups who use technology differently and how to support rapid knowledge flows across business units rather than within them. All three areas of risk are fundamentally about management, but this is a very complex form of management. 

I’ve been thinking and writing about how management practice will respond to rapid technological innovation for more than a decade and it’s clear that the role of manager is evolving rather than disappearing, as it responds to the changes I predicted in these four areas: 

1. Coordination

Continual improvements in robotics and machine learning, together with the fact that many of the routine tasks that human managers used to carry out, such as keeping records that are now automated, mean that your staff no longer need you to tell them what to do or when to perform their tasks. 

2. Efficiency

The sharing of information that technology enables makes it easier to take a clear and more mature view of the workplace. Self-assessment tools, especially those that allow people to diagnose their own function, can help employees pinpoint their own productivity issues. So there’s less need for a manager’s watchful eyes.

3. Hierarchy

Technology is tipping 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? Beyond this, technology-enabled social networking is capable of creating robust and realistic maps of influence and power – so no more hiding behind fancy job titles.

4. Flexibility

The rise of platform-based businesses such as Uber has everyone excited about disruptive models 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. 

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