Succeeding as a business is all about embracing change.
The world around us is in a constant state of flux, with disruptive technologies, social trends and unpredictable events — like pandemics and social unrest — surfacing one after the other. This isn’t new, and although many of us have a tendency to think that some things have always been done a certain way, every part of our lives has undergone multiple changes and transitions. This is doubly true when it comes to business practices and the way companies are organized and managed.
A big part of what we conceive of as work today has been influenced by the production lines and factories of the First Industrial Revolution. In that kind of early industry, workers had set tasks that needed to be carried out, managers who coordinated that work on a larger scale and executives who set goals and defined visions that guided the overall trajectory and aims of that industrialized effort.
Since then, the types of products created and the ways in which they’re produced have changed radically — but the organizational method (in all but a few pioneering companies) has stayed more or less the same.
It doesn’t matter if an enterprise is focused on producing consumer goods, software, or large-scale infrastructure. It’s likely that there will be workers like programmers, engineers, manual laborers, digital marketers, etc. who, much like in the production lines of old, have managers overseeing their work.
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But while that may have been the best organizational solution for industrialists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there’s no reason to think that this is the best way to manage a business today. In fact, we know it isn’t — this rigid structure doesn’t allow companies the flexibility and agility they often need to adapt to new situations as they arise, and can inhibit employees’ creativity, initiative and engagement. As new technological paradigms and possibilities become available, more and more large enterprises are starting to think about democratization and the flattening of their organizational hierarchies.
New technologies, like talent marketplaces — which allow employees to seek out opportunities within their companies independently, aligning both their personal aspirations and the needs of their organizations — alongside learning experience platforms and sophisticated communication tools, have all turned the type of coordination critical to the role of managers into an automated, organic process. This leaves more room for people doing the actual work to take initiative and make smart decisions on their own in light of broader business needs and priorities. Not only are they able to take these extra responsibilities on themselves, but studies show that when they do, their engagement and commitment to the workplace actually grow, as does their sense of professional satisfaction and fulfillment.
But to truly reap the full potential these tools can offer, organizations need to adapt their company culture to accommodate them. The biggest change this requires is to stop thinking about employees as resources that belong to managers and to start thinking of them as talent that can and should serve the entire organization in a way that also aligns with their own personal aspirations. The company should structure itself in a way that offers its workforce a robust, colorful wealth of opportunities in which their skills and abilities can be utilized — where initiative and engagement will naturally follow. Often, however, there’s a natural resistance to this idea from managers, who feel like this kind of change takes their most important resource — their employees — away from them. In a sense, it does. So do we even need “managers” anymore? The answer, in my opinion, is both yes and no.
There will always be a need for people to actively think about the bigger picture and make decisive decisions, and people holding managerial positions today are perfectly situated for that. But should they be dedicating their time to managing their workers?
The more I think about it, the shorter the distance between management and micromanagement seems to be. Still, these managers need to be in a position to affect change in their designated areas of responsibility. But as more responsibility and power shifts to the workers themselves, I’ve found that it’s helpful to stop thinking about these people as managers and to start thinking about them as leaders.
Their role is no longer to push their workers from behind toward their goals but to show them their goals and pave the way forward. With smart technology and progressive organizational structures, employees can be trusted to find their own paths toward these goals by themselves.
So can technology transform managers into leaders? There’s no algorithm for turning a manager into an inspiring leader. But algorithms, along with cultural change, can help people in the right positions rise to the occasion and drive the organization forward.