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Key success factor for Enterprise 2.0: Finding new roles for middle management

May 26, 2010

[This is a repost and minor update from a blog entry I had posted almost a year ago, but I believe that it rings even more true today.]

Yes, I said it. And here’s why.

A couple of days ago, I posted the following tweet:

Disintermediation Brought to You by Lance Amstrong (by @jtwinsor) [“Celebrity 2.0” authenticity over fakery/posery!]

Then I came across the “What Will Social Networking Displace?” blog entry by @lauriemccabe, which triggered another tweet from me:

Social&collaborative media can tear down political/religious/cultural/organizational walls that ppl in power r fighting hard to preserve.

I felt so strongly about it that I posted two more tweets:

Social media disintermediating PR agencies on Web; collaborative media disintermediating middle mgmt within enterprise. Runners > hurdles!

“Cross group collab” perennially ranks low in employee surveys (at least at Microsoft). IMHO, problem is middle mgmt.

And then I saw the following blog entries, all of which attempt to differentiate the challenges and impact of social computing on the Web against those of collaborative computing within the enterprise.

Although these guys made some very valid points, and I have the utmost respect for their perspectives, I believe that they missed the biggest issue of all in terms of the primary challenge for successful Enterprise 2.0 implementations, which is succinctly described in the following blog entry:

Essentially, the primary challenge comes down to people, and there are 4 types involved in any given Enterprise 2.0 project:

1. The software vendor’s sales and support personnel

2. The consultants (who could also be from the software vendor) who help design and implement the solution

3. The organization’s personnel (usually IT), who provision and manage the solution

4. The organization’s personnel (usually LOB), who use the solution

Hence, and I quote:

The secret to sniffing out a rotten enterprise software implementation is recognizing these groups and identifying how well their interests are aligned. In successful implementations, all the key players have complimentary goals and objectives. In failed implementations, these groups are working at cross-purposes, if not actively trying to sabotage each other.

I could end this blog entry right here [even more so now that I’ve posted the The Collaboration Framework’s Organizational Enablers: People and Culture entry], but I haven’t directly addressed the provocative subject of why I believe that finding new roles for middle management is a key success factor for Enterprise 2.0. Okay, here me out. While management in the most generic sense is “simply the act of getting people together to accomplish desired goals,” middle management “is a layer of management in an organization whose primary job responsibility is to monitor activities of subordinates while reporting to upper management.” And just like how social media and other Web 2.0 technologies have enabled Lance Armstrong to bypass the middle management (e.g. PR firms, talent management agencies, news makers) that has stood between him and the general public, Enterprise 2.0 technologies enable people who are doing the “real” work within organizations to bypass their middle management and connect and collaborate with each other directly as well as update and engage upper management directly. By cutting out middle management, the savings are not only in the salaries of those individuals but also in the time and energy expended by their subordinates and upper management to interact with them. Yes, middle management is the tangible overhead in many organizations that Enterprise 2.0 can eliminate!

Of course, no one likes losing their jobs. Without a preemptive plan to find new roles for middle management personnel who will ultimately be displaced, they will undoubtedly do everything they can to jeopardize the success of the project because self-preservation is a powerful human instinct that’s driven by pain and fear. Similar to ERP and CRM projects in the past, Enterprise 2.0 projects have as much, if not a lot more, impact on an organization’s personnel, especially those in middle management. Hence, every Enterprise 2.0 project should include “finding new roles for middle management” as a key success factor.

What new roles can former middle managers play in an organization optimized (or transformed) by Enterprise 2.0? Well, that’s going to take a whole other blog entry, so bear with me while I find time to write it. In the meantime, I would love to get your feedback on what I’ve posted above.

[Update: I received some feedback from Christian Buckley via Facebook:

Great post, but I have one issue with your conclusion — that the primary role of middle management is doing nothing more than pushing paper, chasing status reports. If managers provide no value, then yes, cuts should be made. But what is often lost is the human factor — large, flat organizations (look at Google, for example) have notoriously poor employee sat numbers, because there is very little manager-to-direct interaction. On the contrary, the best-performing and, arguably, happiest teams are the ones where there are strong manager/employee relationships. Can one Director do that with 30 reports? Nope. But can it be done with a robust collaboration platform? Still nope.

To which I replied:

Thx for the feedback. I was referring to the middle management “overhead” in most large organizations where managers have fewer than 7 to 8 direct reports. The “magic number” of DRs may differ in different organizations, but I do agree with you that having 30 DRs is not healthy or sustainable. Nevertheless, I still believe that Enterprise 2.0 technologies can reduce the need for traditional middle management roles, so managers can spend less time managing and more time coaching, leading, and contributing.


[Update 2: Just saw this insightful blog entry by Trevor Gay, which makes the point that “the manager is dead – long live the coach” and partially affirms my thesis about how middle management must evolve beyond just managing. I quote the relevant excerpts below:

Nowadays the subordinate person who was previously ‘managed’ by their boss is in possession of as much information as the boss – thanks to the internet. The implications for managers are simple and obvious. If the manager is to retain that ‘higher place’ in the pecking order he/she will need to illustrate what is the added value he/she brings. And ‘many years in the job’ is not the right answer.

I advocate embracing the new challenge and see your role as a coach of talent. The manager with experience and qualifications should be in a position to impart that knowledge and encourage the people in the team. I see less hierarchy and more teamwork where the coach has the job of keeping all the team members happy, fulfilled, motivated, stretched and enthusiastic. This will require development of new and existing skills. The alternative is to watch frontline employees take your space in the organisational chart.

Peter Drucker said “90% of what we call ‘management’ consists of making it difficult for people to get things done.” In the new world of management I see frontline employees being in control of their own workload and calling upon the coach for advice when they need it. Customer expectations are increasing because the customer is more informed. Frontline workers must be at least one step ahead of the customer in order to meet that expectation. The customer of the future will be more demanding. To be left waiting for an answer while the frontliner goes through various layers of management to solve simple problems will not be acceptable.

We have to find ways of ‘letting go’ of the perceived power managers currently have. The best way to gain power is to let go of power. Frontline employees are more than capable of creating their own working practices and project teams with the ‘support’ of the coach rather than the ‘direction’ of a manager.

And here’s a related blog entry by Domenic Certa about how to go from being just a “good” coach to an “amazing” coach.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 26, 2010 11:26 AM

    I’m glad you posted the 2nd update, because as quick as I am to demonize artificial management layers, there can be value at that level of the organization when it is leveraged appropriately.

    Far too often, middle management is relegated to the role of ineffective communications intermediary between the troops and the brass. They spend their time interpreting and translating. It is almost as if someone destined them to a life of managing an inbox and filling out TPS reports.

    The best middle managers don’t want to work this way. They want to act more like a GM and coach for a sports team. In sports – the goal is clear – championships. The coach and GM don’t spend their days explaining the different benefits of winning, they spend their days figuring out how to take the resources available to them to blend and build the team in a way that will deliver the maximum result. Their results are clearly reported on SportsCenter every night, and standings are pretty darn easy to interpret. Without the overhead of managing the message around the team’s goals and results, the coach and GM are free to concentrate on maximizing the contributions of who they have.

    We lack that clarity, simplicity, and transparency of goals in business. In “2.0” environments where the most senior leadership is completely transparent about goals and strategy, the middle manager has a chance to pick themselves up out of that inbox and those TPS reports and really focus on helping his or her “players” improve. He or she can put the team in the best position to win. They can look at hiring as bringing someone in to a community and will work to ensure everyone is reaching their potential within that community.

    If collaborative technologies are used to “flatten” the information distribution within an organization, that’s a good thing. However, some of the hierarchy is valuable because decisions still need accountability, and that’s much harder to “flatten.” The good news is, that if we take the communications and information distribution overhead from the middle managers, we’ll quickly separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to those best at adding value and helping their teams win.

  2. June 14, 2010 3:38 AM

    Nice post! And Great follow ups on the related topics.

    I strongly do believe that enterprise 2.0 is a very important tool to manage/execute a transformation or Change program through out the organization. Research by McKinsey and PROSCI the success rate of transformation has been below 40%. To increase this percentage and make the transformation or change program a success and involve employees Enterprise 2.0 plays a key Role.

    To know more about the research

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