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Friday, March 15, 2013 by Angela Ashenden
One of the most important pieces of advice that I give when I’m talking to organisations about how to build a collaborative culture, is to avoid underestimating the power of middle management when it comes to potential risks to your collaboration adoption strategy. I touched on this in my post If you build it, will they really come? Getting the conditions right for adoption of social collaboration, but let me explain in more detail why I believe this is such an issue.
One of the key characteristics of a collaborative organisation (as I laid out in my report, How to build a collaborative culture – Part 1: Discover the building blocks for success – you can download this for free, by the way) is its networked, non-hierarchical nature – typically being the antithesis of the “traditional” command-and-control organisation where there is a rigid hierarchy of roles and management authority. In this environment, communication can flow freely right across the organisation, from top to bottom and from bottom to top, as well as across departments and roles. This creates an environment where ideas can surface and be collectively developed into something bigger, where decisions can be made more quickly and in a more informed way, and where individuals are defined not by their role, their seniority, or even their team, but by the set of skills, knowledge and experience they can contribute to a particular task, discussion or activity. Social collaboration technologies in turn can play a tremendous role in supporting and facilitating this open, connected organisation, providing a platform for discussion and interaction, even where the organisation is spread across multiple geographies and timezones.
However, the transition from a traditional organisation to a more flattened, networked organisation inevitably has a significant impact on middle management. While to some extent their resistance to adopting technologies that support a more collaborative culture may be due to concern over it becoming a distraction to staff that might impact on their productivity, they may also quite justifiably be concerned for their own role – if staff are engaging with the senior management team directly, where does the middle manager fit in?
Addressing this concern should be a major issue for any organisation looking to evolve its culture into a more collaborative one, since this is a fundamental aspect of the business change required, and relates to a necessary shift in the role of the manager. While your short term efforts need to focus on ensuring your managers understand why this cultural change needs to happen, and ensure that they have the bandwidth and flex in their resourcing budget to allow their staff to embrace the change, your long term efforts need to focus on understanding what a manager should be in this new culture, because you cannot simply remove all aspects of today’s wide-reaching manager role completely. The term “manager” itself may be called into question however, since the role will need to become more about supporting and developing your more empowered staff, rather than directing or controlling them. An important implication of this is that organisations will need to understand the skills that define a good manager (for example in the same way that there are a specific set of skills that make a good Project Manager) and recruit people based on this, rather than – as is often the way – based on the management path being something you move onto when you have reached a certain level of experience or seniority within a department or role.
In reality, a widespread shift in management role description and skills will of course not come about quickly; but I do believe it’s important that we approach the shift in the culture of our organisations with our eyes open to what that means for the way we define roles and responsibilities and the progression between them, and of course the way we reward them.
Do you agree? Have you seen any evidence of this shift in the role of the manager in your own organisation? It would be great to hear from you.
(A note from the editor: This post was originally published on the AIIM community blog, where Angela posts monthly as an invited ‘Expert Blogger’.)