Is there a role for managers in the fast response, rapid change, constant flux VUCA world of business in the digital era? Yes, and they’re more important than ever.
Entrepreneurs invented management for the same reason they pursue innovation of all kinds: to address a need. In the nineteenth century, entrepreneurs created a brand-new form of customer capitalism. They introduced railroad systems, telegraphic communications, mass production and mass distribution, and created huge factories and global supply chains for the first time. The orchestration of these systems to assemble the right combination of inputs and bring them together at the right time, organize the new high speed manufacturing capacity, and to get the output distributed to warehouses, shops, and homes across the newly expanding geography of America represented new levels of complexity that no-one had ever before encountered.
It was a problem to be solved. And so, the entrepreneurs – Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Carnegie, Roebuck, and many, many more – invented management structures and management processes to solve it. Their management systems were world-changing innovations just as much as their new products and services were. Alfred Chandler, the foremost business historian of the era, called it a management revolution.
The companies Chandler chronicled were market-driven and customer centric. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil brough cheap illumination to America’s new homes, extending days and improving both productivity and the quality of family life. Roebuck’s Sears, Roebuck & Co catalog brought a vast, unprecedented selection of items to those same homes much the same as amazon does today (except that Sears, Roebuck extended credit – “Send no money until delivery!”)
These management models extended into the twentieth century, without much structural change, but the transition from entrepreneurial business owners to salaried professional executives brought a lot of deterioration in the ways in which the models were operated. The new breed of executives turned inwards, examining the efficiency of internal processes more than the effectiveness in the delivery of customer experiences. Cost reduction through process management became the holy grail.
In a self-defeating manner, the executives built bureaucracies to police the internal processes, in layers of management, new compliance functions in legal, finance and HR departments, and a generalized move towards the sclerosis of command-and-control and away from the free-flowing delivery of customer value.
At the beginning of the 21st century, businesses are discovering that the command-and-control approach of bureaucratic management can’t function in the fast-moving innovation environment of the digital age. The new approach is the Adaptive Entrepreneurial Value Model. Value is the singular focus: that’s value for customers, not to be confused with or intertwined with value for stakeholders or shareholders. The value customers experience is an outcome of the corporation’s singular focus on customers. Entrepreneurial means business conducted with an entrepreneurial orientation, always aiming at improving customers lives, always sensitive to the condition that they’re looking for increased value tomorrow even though they might feel satisfied today, and always exploring and experimenting in the pursuit of innovation.
And adaptive means willing and eager to change in response to new data and new information, about customer preferences, competition, business conditions, regulation, new business partner opportunities, or any and all elements of change that signal an opening for profitable adjustment.
The era of adaptiveness foretells the end of the era of bureaucratic management hierarchies – but not of management per se. The command-and-control format for management doesn’t fit the high-response world of adaptation to new market data, nor do tools like 5-year strategic plans and annual operating plans and budgets. But that does not mean that all firms should radically decentralize and eliminate management in favor of self-organizing agile teams and A.I algorithms. Experimental trials of such approaches, such as holocracy at Zappos and the “bossless” organization at Valve, have ended badly.
In fact, managers are more important than ever – just not in the old command and control way. Rather they are now coordinators and orchestrators, enabling adaptiveness rather than impeding it. This kind of management is a tricky expertise to get right – but it’s vital, and it offers great opportunities to those who can excel in the role.
Peter Klein, who is Professor of Entrepreneurship, and Chair of the Department of Entrepreneurship and Corporate Innovation at Baylor University, is the co-author of Why Managers Matter, a management manifesto that bucks some of the current trendy thinking about lean, flat, leaderless organizations.
A well-functioning management process can change internal production processes, teams and resource allocations as needed in response to external changes in customer demand and marketplace conditions. Professor Klein’s advice is to distinguish between circumstances that call for Mark 1 management (exercising managerial authority and giving instructions) or Mark 2 management (indirect guidance through organizational design).
When there is a high degree of interdependence between people, teams, and tasks, such that it is critical that tasks are highly coordinated, completed at the same time and combined in a highly specific fashion, then management intervention is required, and it will include Mark 1 elements. When production is more modular, when tasks and projects can be completed interdependently, then Mark 2 management can be exercised through a decentralized, flat, and culturally aligned organization. (Professor Klein cited the example of the type of higher education institution where he works; all the professors can design and teach their classes, do their research, and publish their papers and books with a high degree of autonomy.)
He points out, through relevant case studies, that a flexible corporate management structure can be better at adaptation than, for example, a network of independent contractors and suppliers that would be challenged to orchestrate responsive changes to an external change, since each would have a different experience and process it through a different cultural orientation. They wouldn’t co-ordinate as well or as quickly as internally managed teams.
So, management isn’t dead in the digital age. In fact, it’s returning to the co-ordination and orchestration role that Rockefeller and Carnegie and their compatriots originally intended for it – but working with a different set of production machinery.