The technology revolution has brought us a lot—dramatic improvement in what we know about customers and how we interact with them, markedly better information for making decisions, the ability to work through virtual teams scattered around the globe. But its unseen legacy might be something much more fundamental: It has changed the very nature of how people work. One consequence seems clear: The classic job of the middle manager will soon disappear.
In a way, we’ve come full circle. The Industrial Revolution—arguably equivalent to the technology revolution that has now swept the world—mechanized work in a way that destroyed much of the old order. Previously, the people who created the most value were craftsmen. They spent many years as apprentices, deeply learning their craft and earning the respect of their peers, before becoming masters themselves to other apprentices. The Industrial Revolution automated many of their highly developed skills, leaving the majority of jobs requiring only the shallow general skills that kept things running smoothly rather than created and innovated.
Now technology itself has become the great general manager. It can monitor performance closely, provide instant feed back, even create reports and presentations. Moreover, skilled teams are increasingly self-managed. That leaves people with general management skills in a very vulnerable position. In the past their networks and abilities were built up in one company—but as tenure with a single company decreases, people lose the opportunity to develop deep knowledge that other firms might value. Plus, thanks to the internet and search engines, everyone now knows or can know something about everything. There is little competitive advantage in being a jack-of-all-trades when your main competitor might be Wikipedia.
Attitudes toward management have also changed. As my research makes clear, Gen Y workers see no value in reporting to someone who simply keeps track of what they do, when much of that can be done by themselves, their peers, or a machine. What they do value is mentoring and coaching from someone they respect. Someone, in other words, who is a master—not a general manager.
What does this mean for you? If you’re a middle manager now, you aren’t doomed to early retirement. But you must be prepared to make two crucial investments. The first is in acquiring and building knowledge or competencies that are valuable and rare—what I would call your “signature.” Without it you will become invisible, no longer propped up by the trappings of managerial life. Visibility will come not from the HR departments of the past but from the rapidly emerging guilds of the future. Some, like the virtual guilds Sermo (for U.S. physicians) and LawLink, already play the role of the medieval guilds by verifying skills and increasing knowledge.
The second investment is in developing new areas of proficiency, or moving into adjacencies, throughout your working life. But in the future not all deep knowledge will be valued the same. It is important to think hard about which competencies are rare and difficult to imitate and which careers will be most successful. My research suggests that advocacy, social and micro entrepreneurship, the life and health sciences, energy conservation, creativity and innovation, and coaching will be highly prized in the decades ahead.
Are you future proofed?
by Lynda Gratton, a professor of management practice at London Business School, where she directs a research consortium focused on the future of work.