Early this past week, I came across a series of blogs on the Harvard Business Review about the Drucker Forum that will happen in Vienna later this week. HBR and some European sites are hosting guest blogs by many of the major speakers to the forum, a mini-preview of some of the issues on their mind. Each one has been awesome so far, at least in terms of my interests…management, technology, human interactivity, etc. Not surprising since the theme of this year’s forum is Claiming Our Humanity — Managing in the Digital Age. So, I thought I would take a peek at some of the blogs in a bit more depth.
The first one out of the gate was Richard Straub, who back in April wrote Managing in an Age of Winner-Take-All. The post is well-written, including allusions to computers and digital connectivity augmenting brain-led human development as much as mechanical improvements augmented brawn-led development. I’m a little more skeptical when, despite the commitment to Drucker’s management work, Straub describes the modern organization and management practices as constituting a “social technology” construct, but I don’t dispute it’s transformative nature.
With the new technology comes a lot of disruption, and while Straub sees companies like Apple, Amazon, etc. all running towards “winner-take-all”, I’m not sold on those outcomes. I think they will reap whirlwind profits, but even Apple’s music dominance is giving way to newer players like Spotify. I do however agree that old-style management theory isn’t going to work in business management that is dealing with hard-core changes:
Consider management actions such as cutting jobs and investment as a response to currency fluctuations and the resulting accounting impact of those cuts on earnings per share (EPS). These types of cuts are applauded as canny, even heroic, by stock markets — despite their damage to the longer-term value-creating capacity of the enterprise. Share buybacks are preferred to investment in innovation, entrepreneurship, and value creation. And internal innovation often obsessively targets cost cutting instead of the search for new ways to delight customers or to enable employees and partners.
The digital revolution — the “mother of all technology developments”— marks a fork in the road. One path invites us to depart from industrial-age management practices and mindsets and use the power of information-age technology to augment humanity’s role and importance in business. The other tempts us to apply the new abundance of data and expertise in creating software routines to automate the old logic of organizations, effectively hard-wiring the most dysfunctional rules managers relied on in the past.
Despite my misgivings about Straub’s constructs, I can’t disagree with his conclusions — too often, the new discussion is about “big data” or “new data” or just plain “more data”, but not whether that data tells us anything. Similarly with tools, we opt in organizations for automation without first evaluating whether the current business model that we’re automating is the one we want tomorrow, or if the tool will just anchor us to the past even further, rigidly planting our feet in cement while the world changes around us.
Where Straub leaves me behind is in the belief that private sector managers are, as Drucker put it, “society’s main leadership group”. I think they are one force, but perhaps because I am a government person first and foremost, I don’t look to the private sector to lead me anywhere I likely want to go.
But as a first blog in a series of posts on managing in the digital age, it does raise provocative questions.