The death of managers

April 1, 2015

Read time 2 min

The role of a manager has come to its end. Some organizations rid themselves of managers tens of years ago. Some live with such relics even today. The days of the traditional manager are numbered. Let me explain why.

In the eighteenth century Adam Smith wrote “The Wealth of Nations”, a fundamental piece of classical economy. Published at the dawn of the industrial era, the book explains a key driver of efficiency: division of labor. By breaking down large jobs into small components workers could specialize and thus increase their productivity.

Cogs in a wheel

While Adam Smith saw the efficiency benefits of the model, he also understood the negative side-effects. Smith saw how mundane and repetitious tasks would create an ignorant and dissatisfied work force. He predicted that division of labor will lead to “the almost entire corruption and degeneracy of the great body of the people”.

Mechanistic companies of the time were composed of uneducated people as cogs in the wheel. Managers were necessary to assign tasks, measure performance and manage the whole. Being a crucial and important role at the time it was ingrained into the blueprint of organizations.

Meanwhile, the nature of work kept changing, as it always has. People started working more with their brains and less with their hands. The level of education rose. At the end of the previous century, we entered The Information Age.

The average person is now more educated than the most senior of managers in the eighteenth century. Repetitious tasks have been or are being automated. Specialists working in isolation are being replaced with generalists working as a team. Innovation, we’ve realized, does not come from managers, but from experts working in an auspicious environment.

Manager

Skilled professionals working in information-intensive industries no longer need a manager to manage them and their work. They have all the necessary skills and capabilities to manage themselves and co-operate with others. They can do it much better than anyone else doing it for them.

Managers now operating in a traditional manner in information-intensive industries have become bottlenecks. By hogging information instead of letting it flow through the organization they prevent good performance. The blueprint of an organization is changing and the role of a manager is being erased. Good riddance.

Most organizations still need people whose full-time job is to look at the big picture, optimize the long-term and create structures that enable success. Yet that job is miles away from the role of a manager from the industrial era.

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