“In most cases being a good boss means hiring talented people and then getting out of their way.” — Tina Fey
The Digital Revolution marked the beginning of the Information Age.
The Information Age, or Digital Age, or New Media Age, is a shift away from the industrial revolution to an economy based on information computerization. Some would say, along with this shift, we are now in a Knowledge Economy or a Digital Economy.
This opens the door to new ways of working and a new world of work to generate new business value and customer impact.
But what did the Industrial Age do to employees and what paradigms could limit us in this new world?
In the book The Future of Management, Gary Hamel walks through how industrialization and large Enterprises have created a disconnect between employees and their customers, their final product, and the big financial picture. And in the process, he argues, this had led to disengaged employees, crippled innovation, and inflexible organizations.
If you don’t know Gary Hamel, he’s been ranked the #1 influential business thinker by the Wall Street Journal.
According to Hamel, what we traded for scale and efficiencies created gaps between workers and employees and gaps between employees and their customers, the product, the financial impact, and … a diminished sense of responsibility for quality and efficiency.
Maybe We Have Managers Because We Have Employees
Do managers exist because employees do?
“Here’s a thought. Maybe we need ‘managers’ because we have ’employees.’ (Be patient, this is not as tautological as it sounds.) Think about the way computers are dependent on software. PCs aren’t smart enough to write their own operating instructions, and they sit idle until a user sets them to work. Perhaps the same is true for employees.”
Did We Manufacture a Need for Managers?
When we manufactured employees, did we manufacture a need for managers?
“Earlier, I talked about the invention of ‘the employee.’ What happened in this process, at the dawn of the 20th century? How did work life change as individuals left their farms and workshops to be absorbed into large-scale organizations? In manufacturing employees, did we manufacture a need for managers as well? I think so. If we understood how this came about, we will gain clues into how we might learn to manage without managers — or, at least, with a lot fewer of them.”
Disconnected from the Customer
As the size and scale of industrial organizations grew, so did the disconnect between employees and their final customers.
“In pre-industrial times, farmers and artisans enjoyed an intimate relationship with their customers. The feedback they received each day from their patrons was timely and unfiltered. Yet as industrial organizations grew in size and scale, millions of employees found themselves disconnected from the final customer. Robbed of direct feedback, they were compelled to rely on others who were closer to the customer to calibrate the effectiveness of their efforts and to tell them how they could better please their clients.”
A Diminished Sense of Responsibility for Producer Quality and Efficiency
Without a connection to the customer, employees lose empathy for their work, for the customer, and for the final product.
“As companies divided themselves into departments and functions, employees also became disconnected from the final product. As tasks became narrower and more specialized, employees lost their emotional bond with the end product. The result? A diminished sense of responsibility for producer quality and efficiency. No longer were workers product craftsmen, now they were cogs in an industrial machine over which they had little control.”
Employees No Longer Have a System Wide View of the Production Process
It’s hard to make changes to the system when you no longer have a system wide view.
“Size and scale also separate employees from their coworkers. Working in semi-isolated departments, they no longer had a system wide view of the production process. If that system was suboptimal, they had no way of knowing it and now way of correcting it.”
The Gap Widens Between Workers and Owners
People at the top don’t hear from the people at the bottom.
“Industrialization also enlarged the gulf between workers and owners. While a 19th-century apprentice would have had the ear of the proprietor, most 20th-century employees reported to low-level supervisors. In a large enterprise a junior employee could work for decades and never have the chance to speak one-on-one with someone empowered to make important policy decisions.”
The Scoreboard is Contrived
Scoreboards tell employees how they are doing their jobs, but not how the company is doing overall.
“In addition, growing operational complexity fractured the information that was available to employees. In a small proprietorship, the financial scoreboard was simple and real time; there was little mystery about how the firm was doing. In a big industrial company, employees had a scoreboard but it was contrived. It told workers how they were doing their jobs, but little about how the company was doing overall. With no more than a knothole view of the company’s financial model, and only a sliver of responsibility for results, it was difficult for an employee to feel a genuine burden for the company’s performance.”
Industrialization Disconnects Employees from Their Own Creativity
Standardizing jobs and processes limits innovation in the jobs and processes. They are at odds.
“Finally, and worst of all, industrialization disconnected employees from their own creativity. In the industrial world, work methods and procedures were defined by experts and, once defined, were not easily altered. No matter how creative an employee might be, the scope for exercising that gift was severely truncated.”
The Pursuit of Scale and Efficiency Advantages Disconnected Workers from Their Essential Inputs
With the disconnect between employees and their inputs, there was a natural need for the management class.
“To put it simply, the pursuit of scale and efficiency advantages disconnected workers from the essential inputs that had, in earlier times, allowed them to be (largely) self-managing — and in so doing, it made the growth on an expansive managerial class inevitable.”
Employees Don’t Lack Wisdom and Experience
Employees don’t lack wisdom and experience. They just lack information and context.
“To a large extent, employees need managers for the same reason 13-year-olds need parents: they are incapable of self-regulation. Adolescents, with their hormone-addled brains and limited lie experience, lack the discernment to make consistently wise choices. Employees on the other hand, aren’t short of wisdom and experience, but they do lack information and context — since they are so often disconnected from customers, associates, end products, owners, and the big financial picture. Deprived of the ability to exercise control from within, employees must accept control from above. The result: disaffection. It turns out that employees enjoy being treated like 13-year-olds even less than 13-year-olds.”
Disengaged Employees, Hamstrung Innovation, and Inflexible Organizations
What is the result of all this disconnect? Stifled innovation, rigid organizations, and disinterested employees.
“Disengaged employees. Hamstrung innovation. Inflexible organizations. Although we are living in a new century, we are still plagued by the side effects of a management model that invented roughly a hundred years ago. Yet history doesn’t have to be destiny — not if you are willing to go back and reassess the time-forgotten choices that so many others still take for granted. With the benefit of hindsight, you can ask: How have circumstances changed? Are new approaches possible? Must we be bound by the shackles of the past? These are essential questions for every management innovator.”
Does history have to be destiny?
We’re writing new chapters of history each and every day.
In all of my experience, where I’ve seen productivity thrive, people shine, and innovation unleashed, it’s when employees are connected with customers, they are empowered and encouraged to make changes to processes and products, and they are part of a learning organization with rapid feedback loops.