As usual, the devil of these technologies can be found in the details
Managing is a practice, rooted in art and craft, that does not change. It is not a science or a profession based mainly on analysis. The subject matter of managing changes all the time, as do the styles that some managers favor, but not the fundamentals.One recent development dramatically influences the practice of managing: digital technologies.
Has their impact on managing been equally dramatic?My answer is yes and no. No, because these technologies mainly reinforce the very characteristics that have long prevailed in managerial work. But yes, because this very fact may mean that the practice of managing is being driven over the edge.Managing is hectic: It is fast- paced, high-pressured and frequently interrupted.
Talking and listening
It is an action-oriented job. It is also significantly communicative: Managers do a lot of talking and listening. And managing has generally been lateral as well as hierarchical: Research has found that managers spend at least as much time with people outside their units as with those inside.How does the digital age affect these characteristics of managing? The ability to communicate instantly with people anywhere increases the pace and pressure of managing, and likely the interruptions as well. But long before email many managers chose to be interrupted.
Digital communications simply bolster this. No one forces any manager to check messages the moment they arrive. And how many require the immediate replies they get?Internet connectivity has not reduced managers’ orientation to action. Quite the contrary: Every thing must be fast now. And more time at the keyboard means less time spent talking and listening. But text-based vehicles like email are limited to words alone, with no tone of voice to hear, no ges tures to see, no pre sence to feel. Managing can be about interpreting and using these clues as much as it is about the comprehension of content.
I once met a senior governmental official who boasted that he kept in touch with his staff by email early every morning. In touch with a keyboard perhaps, but with his staff? Digital communications technologies, and in particular social media, push the lateral tendencies of managing further by making it easier to establish new contacts and keep in touch with existing ones.
Find the devil
It has always been true that the people who report to a manager are few and fixed compared with that manager’s network of external contacts. Today it is exponentially more true. And so managers’ own reports may be getting less of their time. As usual, the devil of these technologies can be found in the details. When hectic becomes frenetic, managers can lose their composure and become a menace to those around them. The Internet, by giving the illusion of control, may in fact be robbing many managers of control over their own work. Perhaps the ultimately connect ed manager has become disconnected from what matters.
Might new technologies be destroying the practice of managing itself, and thus impoverishing our organizations and societies? We don’t yet know – there is more inclina tion to glorify new technologies than to scrutinize them. But look around you – at a colleague who burned out or at a boss who drives everyone crazy. And then consider this: Are these tools augmenting our best qualities or our worst? Each of us, manager or not, can be mesmerized by them, and so let them manage us. Or we can understand their dangers as well as their delights, and so manage them. (31.8.2015)
Henry Mintzberg is an academic and author on business and management.© 2015 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp., distributed by the New York Times Syndicate