Most managers wouldn’t spontaneously call themselves ‘middle management’, if only to avoid being associated with the ‘middle’ or the ‘mean’, and the reputation of being unnecessary middle men. And yet, a lot of managers find themselves in this role. Research often shows they’re the ones making the biggest difference in difficult times. Does that still apply in a time where technology can take over our tasks? Are the current technological advancements an argument for or against the existence of middle management?
Half of all employees’ tasks could be automated with today’s technology. The job description of a lot of employees will, per definition, change, but in what way? Prof. dr. Jesse Segers has seen the role of middle management evolve over the last few decades. “There will be more room for the aspect of relations. Through data, you could predict which costumers will leave, but it’s not the machines that can sustain the relationship with the customer. The management’s task is to motivate employees to do just that.”
"Through data, you could predict which costumers will leave, but it’s not the machines that can sustain the relationship with the customer.”
The last decade is characterized by a shift from task to relationship management. But couldn’t even that aspect be automated better? “When more technology is used in relationship management, it’s usually not welcomed very enthusiastically in our society. It quickly evokes a number of existential and moral questions. Would it be the same to bond with a robot that has artificial emotions and empathy as it would be to bond with a person of flesh and blood? Neurologically perhaps, but is it human? What makes people unique is the fact that we are imperfect, that we are irrational.”
Disruption in bureaucratic organizations
In the field of administrative and repetitive tasks, automatization will be taking over more and more of our jobs and supporting this type of disruptive changes requires change management. Furthermore, the demand for highly trained technicians will only become greater with the increasing automatization. And they also require (emotional) human support. “That’s why the role of middle management doesn’t just become more critical, but also more important. The new course might be charted by this new technology, but the realization of this course can only be done with the right people,” Jesse argues.
"The new course might be charted by this new technology, but the realization of this course can only be done with the right people.”
A good way of determining the influence of disruptive technology is looking into the theory of leadership complexity. This theory examines how to innovate within a bureaucratic organization. Opposite the formal, operational system (with rules and procedures that push towards standardization and efficiency) there’s the informal world of innovation (which is often very open-ended). “Plans for the future should originate in innovation and then influence the operational system. The sooner that works, the better you can go along with the quickly changing context. However, in a bureaucracy, innovation is seldom linked to the operational system, which causes innovation to remain a local experiment. That makes the future even more uncertain.”
"In a bureaucracy, innovation is seldom linked to the operational system, which causes innovation to remain a local experiment. That makes the future even more uncertain.”
To keep up with the competition in our modern day disruptive business world, companies need to be viable and effective. In the operational system, certainty and conformity tend to be very important. But on the innovative side, that’s not very helpful even for these same companies. “The critical question is as follows: how can we connect the operational and the innovative side with each other? There needs to be a dynamic system with leadership that creates an ‘adaptive space’. And that’s just the perfect opportunity for a middle management role.”
The human mediator
By creating a ‘temporary meeting space’ it’s now possible to link the innovative world to the operational world. Middle management is no longer just controlling and implementing the formal strategy, but it becomes a mediator in the organization, connecting the future to the present. “This adaptive space is supposed to be a place where at least two types of activities come together. A connecting activity that brings people from different worlds together, and a conflicting activity. This can be achieved by making an innovating manager and an operational manager work together on cost effectiveness. After that, they will need a sponsor from the operational side of things, who has power and supports their mutual plans.”
"It’s the bridge builders and networkers of the organization who extract important information from the silos of the organization and connect these pieces of information to each other.”
This way, staff members can develop new ideas and contribute to the innovative power of their organization. “In this process middle management takes part in a ‘brokerage role’, because these new ideas need to be brought to upper management sooner or later. They have a broader access to diverse information, have a faster access to new information and last but not least, have control over which information is being spread, an extra critical element in a world overflowing with information. So the bridge builders and networkers of the organization are the ones who extract important information from the silos of the organization and can connect these pieces of information to each other. This is a critical role that can not be easily replaced with technology.”
All in all, there is no need to worry about middle management disappearing. It looks like their jobs will only get more substantive, relevant and innovative. When machines do what they do best, so will we: create, innovate and inspire. Let’s lead the way.
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