Insights

Middle Management in the Information Age: A Role Overdue for an Overhaul

“Management is the art of getting things done through people,” said Mary Parker Follet, pioneering organizational theorist. She made this statement as Classical Management Theory was being developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and business leaders looked to squeeze more productivity out of maturing Industrial Age organizations. If the number of management and leadership books stuffing Amazon’s endless aisle are any indication, we have yet to master the art even 100 years later.

Now, as we look to the future and move further into the Information Age – Alvin Toffler’s Third Wave – the art of management will get more challenging. As we noted in our recently published Navigating the Top 9 Future of Work Disruptors: A Guide to Creating Your Custom Action Plan, significant changes are coming to the workforce.

Even though these shifts will impact all aspects of an organization, the disruption to management activity is often absent from future of work discussions. Supervisors, managers, and directors – those with more responsibility than control – will be significantly affected by these changes. If leaders want to prevent significant organizational disruption, they need to help this critical layer of managers prepare now.

Challenges facing middle managers in the future of work

In our guide, we discuss how significant changes will have a cumulative effect on the who and what of management and make the art of management more complex. These impacts to managers include:

Changes to who they manage

Expect a more heterogeneous mix of individuals. Managers will have to adjust based on the unique characteristics of each team member. Changes to the who include:

  • Employment Status: the concept of “employee” evolves. Teams will be comprised of individuals with different relationships to the organization, including even the managers themselves. Managers will oversee full-time, part-time, contract, project, and gig workers. Managers will have to adapt to different motivations, institutional knowledge, and incentives, as well as different perceptions of retention and employee experience.
  • Worker Experience Base: the career path becomes non-linear. It’s likely the individuals, regardless of employment status, will also be at different career stages. This creates different motivators, functional experience, and development requirements.
  • Location: work location is no longer a given. Tomorrow’s workers will be remote, hybrid, and in-person, possibly all on the same day.

Changes to what they manage

To keep pace with market speed, organizations will move toward more decentralized models, moving decision-making closer to the edge. Managers will be responsible for more autonomous, self-contained teams. And the integration of AI makes machines part of the team. Changes to the what include:

  • Breadth of Work: Teams become more autonomous and responsive. Managers will need an ecosystem perspective, acting as a holistic business manager and not just a functional manager. They will need to be able to make autonomous decisions that are good for the collective organization.
  • Machine Team: Teams will include narrow artificial intelligence applications. Managers will not only have to understand how they can best work with AI but also how their team members can be effective collaborators with AI.

Some organizations are already facing these challenges, yet we are only starting to see the compounding effects. As the speed of disruption accelerates, so too will the manager’s need to adapt. Organizations have a responsibility to help them prepare and modernize policies accordingly or even today’s best managers will cease to be effective.

How to respond to future of work challenges

As we noted in our guide, a comprehensive analysis of the impacts of the disruptors on managers is the first step. Once the cumulative effects are identified, it will be clear that the future manager role will require new skills. We recommend reskilling managers while also building an organization for the future. Reskilling includes preparing managers, restructuring the who, restructuring the work, and starting now:

Prepare Managers

Screen for soft skills and the ability to manage complexity. Provide guidance on how to adapt to the changes in who and what they are managing. Gone should be the days of “Congratulations, you’re the boss” and replaced with “Congratulations, you’ve been selected to go through the first step of manager development screening.”

Restructure the who

Make the variation on teams manageable. Examples:

  • Create teams that have more similarities: remote-only or part-time only or contractor-only to simplify the management demands.
  • Augment manager roles with manager coaches who are experts in the relationships and unique needs of various types of workers but not the work content. They off-load some of the complexity by being experts in a portion of that complexity.

Restructure the what

Make the breadth of work manageable and empowering. For example:

  • If functional divisions of work no longer make sense, then there are likely others that do make sense for a more problem ownership-based approach.
  • If parts of the organization evolve more rapidly than others to meet shifting customer needs, divide the organization into groups based on speed of change.

Start preparing and restructuring now

With all the future of work disruptions being piled onto the shoulders of managers, now is the time to redesign the role. From tasks and duties to skill requirements, experience levels, education, and metrics, it’s best to start with a blank sheet of paper and design a manager role for the Information Age future without the constraints of the Industrial Age past.

Getting help navigating the future of work

Toffler Associates’ proven approaches have been helping organizations explore potential futures and guide today’s decision-making to prepare for and influence those futures. Our future of work experience has led to assisting organizations in understanding next generation management and developing proactive responses.

Contact us if you want to Future Proof® your organization against these impending disruptions to work and reimagine developing the critical layers of management.

For more information on challenges and disruptions specifically related to the future of work, download our guide: Navigating the Top 9 Future of Work Disruptors: A Guide to Creating Your Custom Action Plan,

About the Authors

Dan Fukushima

Dan Fukushima has been helping organizations identify, plan for, and capitalize on disruptions for over 30 years. He specializes in analyzing the future for growth opportunities, innovative solutions, and impacts of the evolving workforce. Dan has been fortunate to have had an insider's perspective of industry disruption while working in the travel, telecommunications, retail, and consumer products industries. The first 12 years of his career were in industry, most with Delta Air Lines and he's been consulting for over 20 years. He received his BS in Industrial Management from the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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