Flatter hierarchies require deeper skills

The writing is on the wall.

Most people manage themselves with great success: they manage to get out of bed in the morning, they manage to get dressed, they manage to get to the office on time.

Then, at the office, they meet the “manager” that will manage them until end of the day. That’s at best a paradox, at worst a devastating error. – Let the Managers Go

At this point, our entire company is flat.  With no hierarchy, everyone leads within their areas of stewardship and responsibility.  Many will have excess capacity and offer to help another teammate or even go to another department to ask how they can help. (Yes, this really happens—in some cases, it happens every day.) – The End of Middle Managers (And Why They’ll Never Be Missed)

In an interconnected work environment, people with only broad skills are no longer required. People with general management skills are becoming less valuable to the organization. Many of the coordination activities of managers are being replaced by software or circumvented by connected workers. Take a look at the new global powerhouses like Apple or Google. They have far fewer employees (and fewer managers) than 20th century titans like GM or Exxon. The trend to smaller companies, many with shorter life spans, only seems destined to continue for the near future.

I think this indicates major changes for any support function (including learning & development) in organizations. If support functions do not contribute to the company’s value creation, then they will likely be reduced, replaced, or just closed. For middle managers and support functions, this should be a warning. You need to have business skills in addition to general ones. For example, if you are a learning specialist for a software company, it might make sense if you could also do some graphic design, scripting or coding. Billable skills come in handy when the pressure is on.

The future manager, or support specialist, will have to have a T-shaped set of skills. Broad  knowledge & skills in what was once their specialty, and deep knowledge & skills in a business area (preferably billable). These deep skills will differentiate the generalist from the person who gets hired and stays hired.


9 Responses to “Flatter hierarchies require deeper skills”

  1. Luis Alberola

    Interesting post. My experience would be that middle management needs to adapt their skills so as to complement the new working environment. What I mean is, to take an exemple, ifyesterday they needed to act as communication nodes because communication was difficult, maybe today they need to concentrante more on honning relationships, because relationships are so central and yet difficult to establish in this new connected corporation.

  2. Jon Husband

    today they need to concentrante more on honning relationships, because relationships are so central and yet difficult to establish in this new connected corporation.

    Good point, Luis. The generic ‘middle management’ role is changing / has changed .. then we must add in the the impact from the creeping replacement of some/many middle management functions / tasks by various forms of software applications.

  3. Jon Husband

    So management as coaches and knowledge peers ?

    Harold has, at the moment, a manual outlining a very interesting methodology that spells out how pertinent domain, organization and industry knowledge has been rigidly defined in hierarchical arrangement for the past 60 years. Decoding that methodology yields many interesting insights about how the middle management roles could be adapted or re-designed for a / the new set of conditions.

    I’ll have to show it to you the next time we meet F2F.

  4. Jon Husband

    No rush .. I have another similar copy (not made for that specific client). Why don’t you keep it until we meet F2F in August and I’ll translate the “deep code” it contains 😉 and then take it home with me ?

  5. EphraimJF

    Interesting perspective Harold.

    In the growing roar of voices around social business/networked working I hear many calls to remove layers of middle managers. I’m a rather independent guy and don’t particularly like people telling me what to do. But I’ve had enough good managers to feel they are very important.

    The best managers I’ve seen help their team members learn more quickly. Good managers pull on facilitative skills and deep experience to help less seasoned or highly specialized colleagues navigate tough situations. A high performing team usually has an excellent leader, though likely one who supports rather than controls her team members.

    When it comes to intensive projects, skilled managers can help teams focus, stay on track, maintain accountability to each other and overcome obstacles.

    Perhaps its my inclination towards the archetype of the “servant leader” that gives me this perspective, but I think managers, good managers, are just as important as ever and will remain so. I think perhaps is excessive bureaucracy and control that we’re seeing diminish, and with it managers whose only jobs are to administer such systems.

  6. John Hunter

    Another things about flatter hierarchies is that you have more impact. Your good or bad decisions have more affect and more affect on how the company does. Your deeper skills will make it more likely your organization prospers and your jobs is rewarding (instead of lost as the company fades away).

    Deep skills are also enhanced by a strong network when trying to be hired. People are wise to work on that far before they need to be hired. A blog is one great method to build a network.


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