USA: AMERICA - NATURE OF MANAGERIAL WORK CHANGING. - Some say that companies are on the frontier of epochal change. John Thackray sees it as more of a pragmatic trend - a response to slow levels of growth.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Some say that companies are on the frontier of epochal change. John Thackray sees it as more of a pragmatic trend - a response to slow levels of growth.

The nature of managerial work will change as a result of re-engineering, but I don't think anyone yet has a finger on how this will come about,' says Michael Hammer, arch proselytiser of re-engineering. And if Hammer is less than certain of outcomes of the bandwagon he's helped to uncouple - which some regard as one of the watershed trends in global management - the rest of us need not be embarrassed if we find the outlook for the practice of management in the next decade a little opaque.

In the same interview Hammer opined that, 'There are some significant opportunities to do important work to redefine what management work is and what leadership is.' Just what that redefinition will be and how it will come about will depend to a large extent on the willingness of large corporations to undertake organisational reform, instead of talking about it and doing nothing, which is their wont - these days especially when tens of thousands of US middle managers are being made redundant in the name of reinventing the corporation and redesigning and reforming work structures and practices. The recent traumas of downsizing by corporations at the peak of their profitability have all been excused and explained as a long-overdue flattening of hierarchy and a shrinkage of chains of command.

But one should remember that many - perhaps even most - of the mass dismissals are nothing of the sort. They are simply old-fashioned cost-cutting in response to simple overcapacity of both plant and people, relative to current and prospective levels of slow growth in revenues.

The dominant tone of US managers and one that is likely to last many years is a re-dedication to the pragmatic and a determination to improve all the processes by which things are made and services provided. Lofty strategic concepts are in the trash can of history. For example, the old idea that every corporation should have a 'vision' has been shelved by Microsoft, IBM and Chrysler, to name but a few, and in its place these companies are improving efficiency across a broad front.

And with this new revisionism has come a perception that, in the past, US management styles have been far too individualistic for today's environment. 'The culture of US business, from the '50s even through the early '80s was focused on individual stars - the Lee Iacoccas. People were promoted and rewarded for that. Building a team was not something to be admired,' observes David A Nadler, president of the Delta Consulting Group.

Bending would-be stars into team players is going to be the goal of management trainers in the next few years. It is widely believed that only by inculcating managers with tribal and collective capabilities can there be a dismantling of the functionally divided corporation with parallel hierarchies (manufacturing, marketing, finance etc.) culminating at the top - the basic organisation that has been in place since the '50s. Leading US corporations are finally addressing the greatest single process shortfall of several generations of managers - costly, ill-fitting, dysfunctional corporate information systems. Several hundreds of billions have been spent on them without higher productivity yields in either manufacturing or service industries.

The first response to this has been a mass hanging of chief information officers. 'I have read statistics that suggest two-thirds of all management information systems (MIS) bosses (were removed) in the last four years. Those are incredible numbers,' says management guru Tom Peters, who believes it is the CEOs who should have been punished. 'They simply hired a world-class information guy and gave him a blank cheque and told him to bring the corporation into the world of tomorrow. And it feels real good. Only it just doesn't happen to work that way.' His experience at several companies suggests that most MIS were 'working at cross-purposes with providing more autonomy to managers who were working closest to the company's customers.' Given this as background, it is possible to predict how these trends will affect managerial life. Information management skills are going to be crucial to most executive functions. Managers of all kinds will be expected to know enough about their information systems to correct defects, deploy them to new applications, and actually tweak the software. Managers are going to be judged by their process skills, and since these typically take years to acquire, very likely the pace of advancement will slow down, so will cross-functional transfers.

Gurus like Hammer suggest that corporations are on the frontier of epochal change. Maybe some are. But the majority will be responding to a slow growth environment, which tends to dampen experimentation and the urge to innovate and reinforce the status quo.

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