As children, many of us grew up with a vision of the manager as “the boss” – a key source of authority in the business who knew the answers, told others what to do and led with a firm hand. As adults, many of us move into management and try to live that childhood vision – with disastrous consequences. Why hasn’t the “boss as manager” model work for us today? What’s changed? Surprisingly, the answer is beneath you.
To understand what this means, consider, first, the era when management as profession came into vogue – the industrial age. The emphasis had shifted away from the craftsman-apprentice model before mass production, where individuals passed on knowledge one-on-one. Instead, the secret to success in the industrial age was mass production, which required the standardization of business processes and simplification of tasks so that unskilled workers could more easily complete the work.
A manager’s primary responsibilities were to coordinate the efforts of large groups of people, so a highly regimented top-down management style fit best. The 24-hour day was broken down in to two or three shifts, people were assigned to shifts and they generally completed their assigned work. During this age, a manager’s biggest challenges were employees who didn’t show up on time, who left early or who didn’t complete their fair share of work. A firm hand was required to prevent abuse and keep productivity up; the “manager as boss” excelled in this world and this management approach flourished.
On to the knowledge age, where knowledge is the key tool used to create products as well as the product itself. For the first time, many products — semi-conductors, computer hardware, software, even modern phones — rely heavily on knowledge as the key inputs to their creation. In the knowledge economy, the highest single cost in creating the product is the labor of experts – not manufacturing labor or raw materials. In turn, making the most of the knowledge of these experts is the key to success – not necessarily making the most of their time.
With the shift from industrial economy to the knowledge economy, the storehouse of knowledge and authority are no longer in the same hands. In the industrial age, the boss knew best; in the knowledge age, you, as a manager, still have the authority, but the knowledge is beneath you, in the hands of the experts. To adjust for this, a change in management style is needed.
Based on my conversations with respected managers in the age of knowledge and my own experience, here’s how to succeed as a manager in the knowledge economy: