Transition of Managers in Traditional Organizations in Digitization

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Mid-level Managers in traditional organizations need to prepare themselves to operate successfully in the digital makeover. There are atleast 5 fundamental shifts they need to consider to safeguard their positions.

Traditional organizations in their pursuit to become digital businesses oversee a significant level of automation that transforms manual tasks forming part of their long legacy operations.  Automation inevitably leads to shifts in people’s roles and responsibilities forcing companies to redraw their competency maps.  Employees across levels need to become tech-savvy, assume new responsibilities and work in tandem with systems and machines that will increasingly take over some of their tasks.

While digital implementations touch many parts of the organization, the degree and nature of impact generally vary across levels and functions – from C-suite to shop floor and from operations to sales. The functional managers, comprising the middle layer, are no exception to the onslaught of these changes. In fact, they are impacted in more unique ways than one when compared to their colleagues in rest of the organization or counterparts in new-age organizations. This article turns the spotlight on them and discusses the shifts they need to consider if they wish to travel along with their organizations’ digital journey.

A Short Profile of Mid-Level Managers

Let us look at a typical profile of mid-level managers say in a mid-sized traditional organization consisting of 1000+ employees. They are largely ‘Gen X’ population in the age group of 35 to 45 or 50. They look for stability in the workplace, consider savings crucial to building families, make long term investments like housing and value work-life balance seriously.

In the organization hierarchy, they are first and second line managers reporting to department heads and supervising a sizeable number of workforce. They typically hold designations such as Mangers, Deputy Managers or Supervisors.   C-suite expects them to deliver results on a daily basis as per corporate mandate and plans. Thus they are extremely execution focused with no role in shaping strategy or contributing to the plans they get to follow.

Digital Impact and Implications

As their organizations go Digital middle-level managers need to go through a transition that is rooted in a mindset change and transcends multiple areas; newer responsibilities, working methods, technology and business skills etc. However, not all managers are primed to absorb such changes.  To successfully operate in a digital landscape, they need to consider at least 5 fundamental shifts, when practiced consistently can help them safeguard their positions, assume higher responsibilities and contribute meaningfully to the demands of their organization.

From Functional to Process Focus (or Business Model Focus)

Existing Role– Mid-level managers are highly functional oriented and perform pre-defined tasks related to their departments such as Sales, Finance or HR.  They work more closely within their operating groups and normally have an arms-length relationship with other departments.

Digital Impact – Digital leaders tend to move their businesses from rigid functional structures to dynamic and flexible structures as they reinvent their customer engagement processes and establish new business models.  The constructs are never permanent and strengthened continuously to gain the crucial competitive advantage.

Shift – Managers need to move away from the comfort zone of their functional focus (‘head down’) to a broader process or business model focus (‘head up’). They should be more tuned to handling cross-functional responsibilities and need to learn the broader contours of other functions if not the nuances and contribute to effective execution of the end-to-end processes than parts of them.

From Controlling to Enabling

Existing Role – Mid-level managers mostly operate in the tactical and transactional levels with ‘controlling’ as a key responsibility that gains significance where manual operations are high.  As controllers, they ensure that the pre-set business processes are followed all the time and people reporting to them perform their assigned tasks in time, without errors and as per standards. Managers periodically assess deviations and recommend changes to the processes that may sometimes implement a higher level of controls.

Digital Impact – Controlling can be a major casualty in digitization. Automation brings in inherent benefits such as improved output, quality and speed and reduced data errors all enabled by technologies that cover not just processes but also extend to functioning of machines and physical movement of materials.  For example, an IoT implementation in manufacturing would considerably reduce the supervisory tasks of a maintenance manager overseeing the performance of shop-floor machines and a Robotics Process Automation in a customer service centre would reduce the supervisory tasks of a service manager.

Shift – As technology takes over the ‘controlling’ tasks, managers need to move away from a controlling mindset to a more analytical mindset.  They should learn to read different levels of analysis and align details to outcomes to assess the performance of the processes or business models. They should also actively engage with leadership to recommend improvements contribute to planning.

From Individual to Team Players

Existing Role – Traditional organizations take pains to define detailed job descriptions for each and every role so that the individuals performing the roles have clarity and operate within the scope of the role. The boundaries are clearly drawn and the managers are trained to perform their specific role and not encouraged to intervene in other areas.

Digital Impact – Digital organizations expect employees to work more in a collaborative environment and engage with each other to solve business problems and reshape business processes continuously. They value teamwork more than the individual contribution.

Shift – As teams, managers need to work closely with other members of the organization across functions, provide inputs in their respective areas of expertise,  consider other inputs and work towards a process of collective decision making.  Managers also need to build professional networks outside of their operating spheres to learn from multiple sources.

From Risk Avoidance to Risk Taking

Existing Role – Managers are mandated to avoid or minimize risks at any costs and hence asked to stick to defined processes and not engineer new methods themselves. At most, they are encouraged to submit their suggestions for improvements that go through an evaluation process and implemented if beneficial.

Digital Impact – Digital companies follow a ‘fail-fast’ approach to bringing new practices and this can be effective only if managers are encouraged to take risks.

Shift – Managers need to learn to take risks as they will be increasingly expected to implement changes to business practices on the go and try new methods of working that can potentially yield business benefits. Towards this, they need to assess competing approaches to business actions, compute trade-offs and be decisive in their selections without the fear of failures. More importantly, they need to continuously learn from the hits and misses to improve their results.

From Change Agents to Change Makers

Existing Role – Managers are the go-between the leadership and the workers and more often called to perform the role of change agents. Towards this, they need to understand the change – be it in business plans, structure or processes, convince the people at lower levels to accept the change and manage resistance.

Digital Impact – Organization structures and positions may be redrawn continuously leading to job changes or loss at times across levels. Further, due to automation, workers such as shop-floor personnel may need to learn new tasks and work with machines that can take away their routine tasks.

Shift – Mangers need to step up to design the changes that affect their groups than merely accepting orders for changes. They need to work with their superiors to influence the change design as they are in close touch with the workers and know their reactions. They need to communicate even more with their ward, identify skilling needs and protect top performers of their teams through appropriate interventions.

business-men-mdRole of Leadership

Leadership has an equal role to play in transforming the middle-level managers and preparing them for their digital pursuits. Their involvement covers a wide range of interventions and decisions-  from providing them cross-functional experience, sponsoring skill enhancement programs,   appropriately changing their performance evaluation processes and empowering them with a higher level of responsibilities.  Also, leaders should take their managers into confidence as they acquire digital capabilities and make them participate in planning the initiatives.

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Digital forays of incumbent organizations are bound to affect the roles and responsibilities, working methods and metrics significantly.  Middle-level managers should no longer expect to work in a stable environment with a clearly defined job specs. They need consider the changes that can prepare them to become an integral part of the emerging organization and contribute to the growth.

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About Raghuram S

I am a Management Consultant with over 25 years experience in the industry and run my own firm called Cohere Consulting since 2008 focusing on business strategy, IT advisory and program management. Prior to this I was with some of the top consulting firms in India including S.B. Billimoria, PricewaterhouseCoopers and IBM. I have participated in a number of strategy and IT delivery engagements across a wide range of industries including manufacturing, consumer products and IT Services. In addition to my consulting assignments, I also spend considerable time in industry research and teaching at premier management institutes. I am based out of Bangalore. I have an MCA from Birla Institute of Technology, Mesra, Ranchi and an MBA from XLRI, Jamshedpur. I can be contacted at raghurams@cohereconsulting.com
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