Are Managers Even Necessary?

September 27, 2010 by  

Do knowledge workers need to be “managed?” Many will tell you no. This view says that if workers are smart enough to be “knowledge workers,” then they are smart enough to organize themselves. This thinking is also consistent with the view of networks as living organisms capable of self-organization.

There are a few interesting examples of a “leaderless” approach to management. One is the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, which has no conductor and fills all other leadership roles on a rotating basis. Another example was Ternary Software, a small development shop that was run democratically from 2001 to 2006 through consensus (one of the founders has since left the company to productize and evangelize this management approach).

Although far from being a leaderless organization, Cisco is an example of a company that has pushed power and decision-making down from the executive suite to a much broader base of managers. Interestingly, this company provides much of the hardware and consulting that is building business networks. There is view inside Cisco that the company has to learn to use networks and collaborate effectively themselves as role models for their customers. CEO John Chambers explained to Fast Company, “In 2001, we were like most high-tech companies…All decisions came to the top 10 people in the company and we drove things back down from there.”  Today, the company relies on a network of 59 operating committees to make decisions, a system that Chambers says could create 500 potential successors for his role.

There are plenty of skeptics about Cisco’s experiment, as evidenced by a wave of discussion in the blogosphere in August 2009 set off by an article on this structure in the Wall St. Journal and a follow-up post by Henry Blodget asking, Has Cisco’s John Chambers Lost His Mind?  It is obviously too early to tell how this will turn out for Cisco. We believe that this approach will be like Boeing’s experiment with the 787—a learning experience that will leave Cisco way ahead of the curve in building a flexible, innovative organization.

In these examples, management tasks still exist, they are just handled in a different way. In the case of Orpheus, management tasks are handled in rotation. Big picture decisions are made collaboratively. In the Cisco case, they are distributed to standing and ad hoc committees. So the right question isn’t really whether you need management but, rather, how management tasks are to be handled. So what are the tasks and roles of a manager? Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post!

Adapted from Intangible Capital: Putting Knowledge to Work in the 21st Century Organization by Mary Adams and Michael Oleksak.

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