Tall glass office buildingWhy is Management Still Relevant?

In 2010 the Wall Street Journal published an article entitled “The End of Management” not as a question but as a statement. While providing a hat tip to the view of Peter Drucker that management was “the most important innovation of the 20th century” and the contributions of the management leaders of the late 19th and early 20th century, the article argues that what we have learned about management from the past may not be as relevant today. The article implies an important question: “Is this really the end of management as we know it?”

Management, as a practical discipline and role, remains relevant and important because the basic problems it is there to solve still exist; along with a whole bunch of new and more challenging issues. As it has been traditionally understood, management is how developed western economies have been able to harness a diverse range of resources and skills to build products and services that have fuelled prosperity at an unprecedented rate. The resurgence of Japan and Germany after WW2 and the subsequent rapid emergence of China and India as economic powerhouses, is due in part to their adoption of management as an essential way of allocating and coordinating work to produce the products and services that the world wants.

Whatever happens in an organisation, and whatever that organisation is, work needs to be allocated and co-ordinated to produce the expected business results and to avoid unnecessary duplication or complications. These activities are usually undertaken in the context of a group of people who are expected to use their knowledge and skills for group performance and the manager is expected to make a significant contribution in producing that outcome. But there are other qualities of good managers that are essential to this contribution because effective management and an effective manager is far more than supervision and the exercise of a misplaced sense of authority.

As the information flowing from engagement surveys shows, there is a very low level of engagement by staff across these developed economies, so one thing for sure: management is not getting any easier.

What makes management more difficult today?

The practice of management is becoming more and more complex for a number of reasons:

  • Firstly, there is the impact of technology with the flow of information of all types travelling at light speed in increasing volumes that make it difficult for anyone to keep up let alone do everything well;
  • Secondly, the economic implications of globalisation have created significant opportunities but have also introduced new challenges to traditional assumptions about careers and business models;
  • Thirdly, there are the social changes that are reflected in the expectations employees and other stakeholders have of their managers, their organisations, how they should be able to work, the effort they are prepared to contribute and what they should get from the organisation;
  • Fourthly, there are the generational and transitional issues that might mean a manager is responsible for a group comprising up to 3 generations, each with their own set of expectations and social behaviours that can at best, limit collaboration and at worst create conflict;
  • Finally, there is the inherent challenge of influencing and adapting to all of these changes as you are doing your day job.

What can we do about it?

Management is first and foremost, about people who are employed to create value, both individually and collectively, within the context of an organisation. Despite the argument in the WSJ article that Jack Welch and others opposed the corporation as a bureaucracy, the reality is they simply worked other channels to achieve what they felt was necessary for the business to do at that time. They did not work in isolation. They did lead and work through people to achieve those outcomes and effective management was an essential element of their ability to execute their plans. The issue is always around how well management is being done and whether its practice resonates with the people being led or simply acts as a despot to drive behaviour that is ultimately unsustainable.

When I joined IBM there were people who carried the torch for the company and perpetuated the values that made it a great company. Many of them occupied management positions but today, the overemphasis of leadership as a higher virtue than effective management, misses the point that effective leaders are also good managers and effective managers occupy leadership positions. Leadership matters but so does good management and when the professional manager performs professionally then everyone benefits.

Organisations are far more than bureaucracies and effective managers are far more than bureaucrats. They are as necessary now as they were for Jack Welch.

To confront the challenges presented to management and managers today, we need to dig deeper on some key areas that are critical to being effective managers. Our next post will concentrate on the value expected from a management unit to understand why it exists at all and what you, as a manager, should do about it.