The profile of management has changed substantially in the past fifteen or so years. It’s hard to recognize the magnitude of these changes in the same way that it’s hard to recognize the changes in your own children on a daily basis. If you take a snapshot of management today, it will likely be younger and better qualified than people in the same situation about a decade ago. The qualifications profile will also likely have a strong bias towards some kind of commercial qualification. For example I worked in a blue chip bank with a multinational footprint. The director I reported to was qualified as a chartered accountant, MBA and also had a legal degree. This kind of profile was common among senior management of the bank and remains so. This kind of setup feeds itself. It values its own image and as a result the old guard of management has slowly been displaced from the system. This perspective shows up in recruitment processes today. Look at a typical modern job specification and it will likely be heavy on KRA’s, qualifications, experience etc. The more numerous the better. A young Steve Jobs would be unlikely to make the grade set by corporate recruiters today. Of course there are exceptions and they remain exactly that.
The question is has all this change resulted in better quality of work? This begs another question. What is work and if you asked a manager or director that question today would they have a meaningful answer? I suggest the answer to these questions is NO and I submit the poor state of the economy as evidence. The question of what is work is not to be confused with the question “what work do you do?” The latter question is easy to answer. It does not necessarily translate to the creation of value and is not the subject of inquiry in this post. I’ll tender a definition of work from Bröms1 et. al. Work is a system that links each workers capacity to serve with a customer’s specific needs. Herein is the essence of a job description, all else is dressing. I also tender that if you measure most management today against this one line specification they will fail. They do not know how to work! I would further suggest that the successes of the last decade have been despite management.
What then has been the contribution of management to work? Its role is implicit in the “traditional view that an organization will reach its bottom line goals if it drives employees, suppliers and other stakeholders to achieve financial targets in their work2.” Compare this to the prior one line job description and definition of work. In this context it is easy for someone to be in a position of management and not really know the company’s products, technologies or customers and how they are related. In this context operating targets are used to drive and indirectly control work. This is where the notion of management and a worker arises from. The worker is the one who actually knows these aspects and relationships of work and delivers the actual value to the customer. The management term for this aspect of work is the word “detail.” Of course management cannot know the detail today. They cannot manage their large portfolio of responsibilities if they did. This approach to work is no different to managing a game of football by looking at the scoreboard. The reality is that when the score is not satisfactory, one ultimately has to look at the players and how they play the game. Management has to know the game to make a difference. Consider a typical scenario however. The score is unsatisfactory. The star striker is called in. His metrics show that he has not taken enough shots at the goal. He is put onto a performance management process. Pull up your socks or face dismissal he is told. It is taken for granted that the player is defective. After all the company paid top dollar based on the players track record and management got a pat on the back when they recruited him. Management will get another pat on the back when they let him go. After all managing people, [….workers] is not an easy job. Is it? It is certainly easier than knowing what work is and doing it.
This distortion in managements approach to work has taken a long time to show up. The reason may be that the “line” has been slower to change and has buffered managements effects. Today however, even the line is changing rapidly to fit managements image. What this means is that corporations are forgetting how to work and your customers probably know it.
Management is younger and better qualified today. The tenure, qualifications and experience need not become the boundary within which management stays/plays. They can serve as the means to get to grips with work in ways that prior generations of management could not. The means of management are not its ends. Management needs to take up its proper role, and “proper role of managers is to lead people to understand business as a system of work, a system that links each worker’s capacity to serve with a specific customer’s needs3.” This is the essence of management.
- Johnson, H. Thomas; Bröms, Anders (2011-01-20). Profit Beyond Measure: Extraordinary Results Through Attention to Process and People (Kindle Locations 232-233). Nicholas Brealey Publishing. Kindle Edition.
- Ibid. (Kindle Locations 356-357).
- Ibid. (Kindle Locations 232-233).