devalued manager status could explain collaboration / wikinomics surge

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by: Yann Gourvennec

Is this another sign of the times, the after-shock after 10 years of Dilbertish hard-talk against managers or just the result of a profound transformation of the employment landscape? It’s probably hard to tell exactly but last december, the FT came up with an interesting article about how managers were perceived in this day and age.

According to FT’s Stefan Stern, when 50 bright mba students were asked how they would describe themselves, they chose titles such as ‘catalysts’ or ‘change-agents’ but refused to be regarded as ‘managers’. To them, almost everybody else is a manager and besides, if it means anything to anyone, being called a manager wasn’t associated with a particular good image of human activity: “When some of our catalysts and change-agents were pressed on what they understood by the term manager, they said it conjured up for them an image of a person who was probably not terribly imaginative or bright. One declared that a manager was someone who was “bossy, weak and insecure, who tries to intimidate people and does not contribute to the bottom line“.

To get back to my earlier question at the beginning of this post, I think that such astonishing results are indeed a sign of the times. They are a sign that management is evolving from this frozen image inherited from the military into this much more intricate notion of cross-functional management which is – by nature – required from modern flexible and information-based organisations. Project-based, peer-to-peer collaboration is what is required by companies which need to reposition themselves swiftly and move faster in a more globalised world. At the end of the day, young ‘managers’, or should we call them ’symbolic analysts’ like Charles Handy in Trust and the Virtual Organisation have not only learned how to adapt to always changing and flexible situations, they have also begun to get used to that fact and now they even like the new status better than they do the old one. William Bridges had warned us in 1995 with ‘Jobshift’ of which one can find a summary here. A little more than ten years later, one can say now that the lansdcape has really changed. We are no longer in a period of mass redundancies and growth is sustained; even though the American house market has slumped, economists today – except Alan Greenspan – deny that this is going to have a negative impact on the World’s economy. Despite this phase of continued growth, our economy is constantly under pressure to do better, more and also differently, forcing all layers of the labour force – not just workers or employees – to adapt to that pressure.

I believe that such funcdamental changes in the structure of work and on the aspirations of young professionals is also a source of motivation for people to work differently, ie to cooperate. In traditional hierarchical organisations, the need to cooperate is meagre. One just has to way for instructions and execute them. On the contrary, in a world of cross-organisational initiative, noone is giving you instructions and if you want to solve your problems and propose new solutions – unless you can do it alone and let’s face it few people can – one has to ask others for help and guidance.

To a large extent, I see examples like the one shown in this FT article, more than anything else, as a living proof that cooperation is happening and why it is happening across the board and why there is such a requirement for people to exchange ideas and help and also to equip themselves with the tools supporting collaboration.

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