Ceilings, Carpets & Middle Managers

Social networks are changing the laws of gravity for our organizations. For middle management this means that the ceiling they are pushing against turns out to be the carpet on the floor.

This is the fourth consecutive night that I am trying to cram my thoughts into an article. Never happened over the past four years of blogging. I consider that a sign. Here we go: the Thursday night post that I wanted to get out of my system since last Sunday…

I am in my late thirties and if I would have chosen for a fixed employment I would probably be in a middle management position, i.e.: accountable for a business unit or a brand and managing a team or a department. I would be pushing the ceiling of promotion to make sure I’d anchor myself onto ‘a decent level’ by the time I am forty.

Rat Race for Compliance

Don’t get me wrong; I have a tremendous respect for middle managers, but I don’t envy them. I can’t help feeling sorry when I see how they are locked-up in the rat race. Their destiny is shaped by corporate culture and an ‘up-or-out’ regime where KPI’s and budgets tell you exactly how high you need to jump. And in case one would doubt, there are always HR performance appraisal systems to add an extra layer of behavioral conditioning.

Sure, these people are paid well and they have a hell of a responsibility. This is what makes machines out of middle managers. They have no other choice than to fit into the game that was invented by Henri Fayol. The game consists of five layers, which are also known as ‘management’. They are:

  1. plan (and look ahead),
  2. organize,
  3. command,
  4. co-ordinate,
  5. control (feedback and inspect)

For more than 120 years this was the management model that made great companies. Unfortunately, the way we run our companies and push middle managers is based on this same 120 year old logic. In an earlier article I have argued what this comes down to: since information is no longer scarce, compliance is no longer the shortest path to productivity. Productivity nowadays is about how you can make a connection to customers, suppliers and other stakeholders.

Isolating the Problem

In pretty much the same way as the internet has reshaped the supply side of our economy, social networks are reshaping the demand side. The same dynamics that have made information abundant have made it easier to connect with customers. Social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, blogs, wiki’s, etc. have taught us a new form of interacting. Control is no longer the center of gravity; co-creation is.

So here is a double problem:

  1. When the rules of the game change, the way to get to your destination changes as well. Imagine what it would feel like when you are a middle manager and you are almost breaking though the glass ceiling. Then, all of a sudden it turns out to be the carpet on the floor?
  2. In this changed game, middle management is still conditioned into compliance-mode by top managers who – ironically enough – are jumping from one fad to the other, making even more dust in the social media arena because they are smelling money. Unfortunately, their budgets are bigger than their attention span and their grasp of what co-creation really is about: the ‘being with’ a shop-floor problem for example.
  3. The social media fallacy chart

The End of Middle Management?

A few months ago Harvard professor Lynda Gratton announced the end of middle management. According to her the technological revolution will make the need for middle management obsolete. There are four main reasons for her to believe that the disappearance is on the cards:

  • Technology has become the great general manager.
  • Skilled team members are increasingly self-managed.
  • Attitudes toward management have also changed.
  • The management of virtual teams takes extreme specialist skills.

When the Dust has Settled

Those of us who have been around long enough may react by saying that we are in the middle of yet another trend. We have seen entire industries shift towards, TQM (Total Quality Management), BPR (Business Process Reengineering), CRM (Customer Relationship Management), etc. and every time the dust settles we see that the good old laws of gravity still apply: work hard to get things done.

The question is what will remain once the dust has settled over social networks? It is still too early to say, but I suspect that some things will have changed. Here is what I suspect that will happen:

  1. Middle Management will still exist (sorry Lynda)
  2. The role of Middle Management will however shift completely from a “tool for compliance” into a “partner for co-creation”
  3. The only way to make this shift happen is by declaring and installing a social architecture, i.e.: a platform on top of your hierarchy that allows for co-creation.

A Call to Action

So middle managers have no fear, your job will not disappear. To the contrary, you should rejoice at the new roles you will be getting and therefore it is time to let go of your fear of social networks. Also: stop telling your colleagues that social networks are a danger for productivity, because they are becoming tools of productivity as we speak.

Just remember that productivity is no longer solely defined by compliance (this has become the lower threshold) but by co-creation (the carpet has now become the ceiling).

  • Hi Luc, I guess I fall into this category of a Middle Manager, and because we are in the “middle” we are really not that affected by Social Media as you think, customers want to talk to decision makers, to those that make policy, not those who do the execution. I agree that once some companies start doing social media, we have to scramble to do quick fixes to issues reported by our customers, but we have been doing that for a long time, the only difference is that the feedback loop is shorter and we need to speed up the reaction.

    As to your comment that “Skilled team members are increasingly self-managed” you’d be surprised how this is not as common as you think. These highly skilled people still need coaching, mentoring, and a healthy dose of “come back to reality” because they know how to do their jobs, but we make sure that they deliver on time and with the expected quality.

    Great post!

  • Hi Carlos,

    Honestly I would have expected very little response from middle managers because I consider them ‘less connected’ to blogs and social networks. Maybe it’s another prejudice.

    Like you I think that when the dust has settled the role of middle management will be one of delivery and getting back to reality. More and more we will find out that social media platforms can accelerate this part of the business. Take Yammer as a prime example.

    Best regards and thanks for your comment!

  • Ann en Manu VT

    Hi luc, Like your article. Expresses clearly my unnamed feelings that I have already a little time and that crystallize around my conviction that middle management should mainly be concerned by making change happen rather than being compliant (which will always be required however, but should get ever more “obvious” by further automation of internal processes and reporting). Change of course not only at technical and system level but mainly as a proactive mindset focussing on customers and employees… so the “people” side of things, which is always the hardest part (read Macchiavelli 😉
    Emmanuel Van Tomme

  • Thanks Emmanuel – granted: there is a balance between co-creation and compliance.

    It is popular / populistic to claim that the era of compliance is over. I am more a believer of balance.

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