Examining my dictionary
What is a manager? My dictionary states that a manager is:
“a person responsible for controlling or administering an organization or group of staff”
But there is an implicit assumption here, which is the following: that an organization or a group of staff need managing. And that’s what it used to be.
The traditional paradigm valued its human resources at replacement cost
Our traditional production paradigms dictated a structure of managers to keep the resources well organized. The resources, those were the inputs, the machinery and ultimately the ones using the machinery to produce something, anything. Which were the workers.
Sadly, in that scheme, the workers were easiest to replace. Machines cost money. Firing employees, especially blue collar employees, not so much. Resources cost money. If those resources are reasonably rare raw material, their price fluctuates with any market that cares to provide them. But you can always find more people.
Education was and still remains a trap
Education became a trap for many people. In my opinion, and I’m very opinionated about education, it still is to an extent. People were being trained to be good little production units, standardized, easily replaceable, easy to manage. What was seen as a way out of the poverty trap many blue collar workers had been caught in, turned out to be a lifelong commitment to the McJob. It paid good money, but it remained a trap nevertheless.
Becoming one of them
The ultimate promotion that could be had, was to become one of them. One of the ruling class. One of the managers. You needed higher education for that. And higher. And higher … master upon master upon master, with requirements skyrocketing. All these qualifications apparently required to rise to a level where you could manage the McEmployees in their McJobs. Each single unit of work had the potential for a number of productive years but was easily replaceable if needed. And that replacement was performed every time the employees became too costly. Or too unruly. Unions were formed, but turned out to become companies on their own, with their own employees who held on to their jobs. And even the managers turned out to be McManagers, reporting to another McManager higher up in the hierarchy, each of them as easily replaceable as the next McManager. Tower of Babel, anyone? Because at the end of the day, each McManager is a McEmployee as well, and holds on to his McJob for dear life.
Where is the added value of the manager?
There is a problem with all of this: the hierarchical chain responsible for controlling or administering that organization does not deliver a significant added value on its own, but they do cost a lot just to control or administer. They used to coordinate workers in order to deliver products and results. That system, when pushed to its logical extreme, led to Just In Time resource delivery to Just In Time production lines which fed large shopping malls which wanted to hold as little inventory as possible and used Just In Time delivery to the store. To a large extent, the world, which is a consumption oriented world, still functions like this. But we are realizing more and more there is little to no added value of the manager other than coordination.
The decreasing need and relevance for coordination
And that coordination is becoming less and less relevant today. Higher and higher baseline education levels mean that many more people understand what they are doing, even if they work on a conveyor belt slapping small thingies to other slightly larger thingies. And they are not the only ones.
The first real enterpreneurial generation
The really creative work is no longer being done in large businesses, but by knowledge workers who are by nature more self managing than most professions we ever had, during the entire human history, other than true enterpreneurs. They constitute, perhaps, the real first enterpreneurial generation. These knowledge workers use a true multitude of online tools to find each other, addressing needs they have not by finding the closest available person that can do the job, but the best available person anywhere in the world.
More leadership, less management
The role of the person responsible for controlling or administering an organization or group of staff, the manager, is becoming redundant. We no longer need any managers. We need visionaries that will provide direction for the engaged, independent knowledge workers, who will create ideas, solutions, products that self-governing teams of skilled workers will build, not because they have to, but because they are interested in it. The key motivational components so eloquently described in Dan Pink’s excellent book Drive will not just power the educated knowledge worker, but the traditional blue collar worker as well.
Death of a salesman
But it will mean the death of the manager. I imagine that death a bit as a scene from Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. No longer relevant, the manager will try to hold on to unrealistic dreams and expectations, and may even try to influence just one more generation. I believe we need to start providing for these people, and ensure they have a good home for their retirement, because we owe them that much. What we do want to avoid is that they crash their cars, like Miller’s main character does, killing himself with all good intentions.
And our organizations will need to start to adapt to that inevitable change.