Managing in the Digital Age: Over the Edge?

23 July 2015

Managing does not change, not fundamentally. It is a practice, rooted in art and craft, not a science or a profession, dependent on analysis. The subject matter of managing certainly changes, all the time, as do the styles that some managers favor, but not the basic practice.

There is, however, one evident difference in recent times that is influencing the practice of managing: the digital technologies, which over the past two decades have dramatically increased speed and volume in the transmission of information. Have their impacts on managing been likewise dramatic?

My answer is yes and no. No, because these technologies mainly reinforce the very characteristics that have long prevailed in managerial work. And yes, because this very tendency may be driving the practice of managing over the edge.

The Characteristics of Managing  

What are these characteristics of managing? As I discussed in my 2013 book Simply Managing, also observed in my 1973 book The Nature of Managerial Work, much managing is hectic: it is fast-paced, high-pressured, and frequently interrupted. In the words of one chief executive, managing is “one damn thing after another.” This is an action-oriented job.

It is also significantly communicative: managers do a lot of talking and listening. This job has always been mostly oral—not much reading and writing. And it has also been as lateral as it has been hierarchical: research has demonstrated that most managers spend at least as much time with people outside their units as with those on the inside.

Observe some managers as I did for my recent book (from a head nurse to a corporate CEO, in settings from an orchestra to a refugee camp), and you will likely see pretty much all of this. Does this suggest that there is a lot of bad managing out there? Not at all. It describes normal managing—inevitable managing.

Now enter the digital age: how do the new technologies affect these characteristics of managing? Niels Bohr reportedly quipped that “prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.” So let’s focus on the present, especially the technology that managers have been most eager to embrace—e-mail.

The Pace and the Pressures  

One thing seems certain: the capacity to communicate instantly with people anywhere increases the pace and pressure of managing, and likely the interruptions as well. “You’ve got mail!”…and better answer it right away.

But don’t be fooled. I found in my original research, long before anyone imagined an Internet, that many managers choose to be interrupted. Digital communication bolsters this. No one forces any manager to check messages the moment they arrive, nor to reply immediately to ones that don’t require it. One CEO told an interviewer: “You can never escape. You can’t go anywhere to contemplate, or think.” But of course you can. You can go anywhere you please.

The Orientation to Action  

Internet connectivity has not reduced managers’ orientation to action—and their disinclination to engage in reflection. Quite the contrary: everything has to be fast, fast, now, now. How ironic that heavier reliance on information technology, which is literally removed from the action (picture the manager facing a screen), likely exacerbates the action orientation of managing. With all those electrons flying about, the hyperactivity gets worse, not better. (Check your messages Sunday night, because your boss—or maybe that’s you—may have called a meeting for Monday morning.)

The Oral Nature of Managing  

Of course, more time reading on the screen and writing on the keyboard means less time spent talking and listening to people. There are only so many hours in every day. Yes, 24! How many more of these are now devoted to such reading and writing in addition to the usual talking and listening, at the expense of sleeping and being with the kids?

Moreover, text-based vehicles like e-mail are thin—limited to the poverty of words alone. There is no tone of voice to hear, no gestures to see, no presence to feel. Managing depends on this information too. On the telephone, people laugh, interrupt, grunt; in meetings, they nod in agreement or nod off in distraction. Effective managers pick up on such clues. But with e-mail, you don’t quite know how someone has reacted until the reply comes back, and even then you cannot be sure if the words were chosen carefully or sent in haste. A senior governmental official I met boasted that he kept in touch with his staff by e-mail early every morning. In touch with a keyboard perhaps, but with his staff?

The Lateral Nature of the Job  

Finally, digital communications technologies, and in particular the social media, push the lateral tendencies of managing further by making it easier to establish new contacts and keep “in touch” with existing ones. The people who report to a manager are few and fixed compared with any manager’s network of external contacts. This is exaggerated today, thanks to the capacity of the social media to extend these networks far and wide. The common result of this is that managers’ own reports may be getting less of their time—in quality as well as quantity. (A later TWOG on Managing in the Digital Age will revisit this point under the title “Networks are not Communities.”) 

Over the Edge?  

As usual, the devil of new technologies can be found in the details. Changes of degree can have profound effects, amounting to changes of kind. When hectic becomes frenetic, managers lose it and become a menace to what is around them. The Internet, by giving the illusion of control, may in fact be robbing many managers of control over their own work.

The characteristics of managing described at the outset are normal only within limits. Exceed them, and the practice of managing can become dysfunctional. Put differently, this digital age may be driving much management practice over the edge, making it too remote and too superficial.

Perhaps the ultimately connected manager has become disconnected from what matters. Might the new technologies, therefore, by undermining much managing, be impoverishing our organizations and our societies? We don’t yet know—there is more inclination to glorify new technologies than to investigate them. But look around you—at a colleague who burned out, at a boss who drives everyone crazy, at yourself and the kids you may rarely see.

Then consider this: are these tools augmenting our best qualities or our worst? Each of us, manager or not, can be mesmerized by these technologies, and so let them manage us. Or we can understand their dangers as well as their delights, and so manage them.

 © Henry Mintzberg 2015. Versions of this post appeared earlier this week on the Harvard Business Review and Global Drucker Forum sites. It is one in a series of perspectives by presenters and participants in the 7th Global Drucker Forum, taking place 5-6 November in Vienna, under the theme: Claiming Our Humanity — Managing in the Digital Age.