Musings on designing experiences & (re)engineering complexity

Jun 2020

Transformation from Middle Management to Automation

Was talking with a former client recently on the topic of about the transformation that is happening within their companies. As part of this conversation, we touched on the incoming addition of automation (this includes the use of machine learning/artificial intelligence, including the usual topic about macros, automated actions, etc.) to a lot of the processes that they would usually hire “middle management“ for. It sounded like an acknowledgment (from one small business owner) to an incoming reality for many industries; even though this business owner has been doing this kind of work for some time. In fact, Avanceé was hired to demonstrate how some customized automated processes could fill gaps where former employees managed items. Suffice to say, our conversation topic, was also an acknowledgment into a new business reality: middle-management is being automated, not industries.

Can this observation be expanded to a broader industry contacts? Probably. It takes a nuance perhaps. Is there something in the nuance which is realistic? Definitely. And one does not have to look any further than the term “technology.“

Applied Tool

Technology being defined as applying a tool to human facilities in order to improve productivity toward such a task. It does not necessarily mean computer technology, even though our modem context relies on that definition. A probably better context for today would stand in the term “connected technology.“ Here we define not only computational technology tools, but aspects of network workflows happening across several types of calculators in order to streamline, perform, validate, and/or regulate a number of tasks and resulting behaviors.

Defined like this, connected technologies sounds more like an omen for such a change. If one looks at the history of “middle-management,” you can see from as early as a biblical reference in the book of Exodus how middle-management was designed, or purposed, to make more efficient the regulation of complaints to a single vision-holder/figurehead. Moving a bit further to more modern times, one can see the rise of industry (1860s to 1920s) as a novel time to be a middle manager. Not only could a middle manager exercise what kind of power to stay relevant. But they also were in prime position to identify the best task to be handled by various skill and experience levels of people. If you will, the middle manager of that time was just as much as stakeholder as the person financing the business. However, they had to rely more on reputation and skill experience for their worth rather than monetary investment.

This mismatch with investment priorities invites middle-management to be defined in the same terms of any other financial investment. If the middle manager can continue to maximize profits, while trimming expenses, then the skills and reputation of that middle manager become more valuable to the investor. If they cannot, then their reputation and experience become too expensive for the role that they hold. Advances in tools and behaviors by middle managers, workers, and consumers change the value of the middle manager greatly.

Middle Management As Technology

One can argue these three work in concert against the middle manager, creating the space by which the middle manager has to constantly reframe their value in concentric worlds often changing quickly around them.

Talented people do not want to be told what to do…

And that brings us back to today. A global pandemic shifted many middle managers, and the departments and people they manage, into a context where the world has once again changed around them. Those managers who have been able to wrangle family presence, virtual conference software, instant messaging, and even working in obscure hours, have made the most of a challenging context. Those who haven’t, are a casualty in multiple means (their value didn’t translate to a new world, or couldn’t pay the toll to this bridge to it). Company owners, stakeholders/shareholders, who were quick to realize this, and recognize the value (reputation and experience) of these managers re-trained, or refrained their expectations accordingly. Those who also recognize this, and sound software in a better position than those middle managers, made also appropriate pivots. And more than a few cases, the pivot included terms such as automation, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and more.

Refactoing the Middle

That client, a fast mover before this context, had already pivoted to using automation to manage people and projects well beyond their regional ability. Many other companies did the same. We helped them recognize where additional personnel resources were not a value add if more attention was paid to tuning existing tools. And at the same time, that business is all about relationships. You can’t (shouldn’t) automate relationships. You do give a better place to relationships when you let the tools of the age do their part while your personnel adapt and refine their parts.

Middle management has to adapt to a new world we are connected calculators are able to do the thing that their experience tells them their reputation does better than anything else. Where those partnerships succeed, so will those managers. But there will not be as many managers needed in such a world. There will be a need for more engineers, technologist, and social scientists. Does the middle manager transform into one of those?