The digitalisation of workplaces is democratising the flow of information and leading to traditional hierarchical organisational systems being eroded.
While at the same time empowering employees through greater transparency and flexibility; amid burgeoning opportunities in learning, innovation, networking and collective intelligence.
While digitalisation promotes the equality and meritocracy of ideas, it’s also disrupting traditional management lines.
Information and knowledge have always been instruments of power, with those who hold it, trusted and respected.
Customarily, for most staff, line managers have been the ones holding and allocating power.
Their legitimacy is based on their years of expertise and their capacity and willingness to share it – as well as their ‘membership’ to the company’s ‘secret circles’ of governance.
However their role as gatekeeper and distributor of knowledge is rapidly changing.
It’s now common for employees to learn about company changes through social media, rather than from their direct senior – corroding the importance of the traditional middle manager role.
As digital transformation gains momentum, so too does the pressure and expectation for middle managers to adapt and prove their relevance to the company.
To remain relevant, their role must evolve from that of boss and power figure, to one of coach and trusted support person.
As workplaces become increasingly digitalised, employees gain new expertise through online and digital learning platforms, rather than from their line managers.
In this new age, a manager’s role is to encourage learnability through sharing knowledge and experimenting – allowing staff room to both fail and succeed.
As opposed to micro-managing, this greater level of freedom will lead to long term success – because a team continuously learning, testing and sharing, will be more innovative and motivated.
Vertical to a transversal
Marilyn Kronenberg, Head of Executive Education & Talent Accelerators at Sanofi, explains lessons from the French pharmaceutical’s two year digital transformation process:
“We observed that the way our managers were leading their teams needed to change completely.”
Her comment relates to the need for companies to move from a vertical to a transversal organisational structure.
A company cannot become fully digital with a traditional hierarchy still intact – as open information disrupts vertical management.
Digitalisation provides the capability and incentive for an organisation to collaborate on projects across different departments, skills-sets and sectors.
The rise and fall of the wikis
One of the major early drivers for companies seeking to go digital was the allure of optimising knowledge management through the rise of ‘work wikis.’
However, these early platforms were rarely effectively adopted or utilised in organisations, due to unwillingness from staff to share knowledge and expertise.
There was a perception from many staff that the process could give away their position of power in the company hierarchy.
Meanwhile, middle management was often not given the necessary backing, to enforce the development and adoption of wikis.
Instead, it was given to a transversal team, which often had little authority in executive committees.
As could be expected, the wiki project usually failed.
Innovation vs resistance
Innovation is a major driver for digital transformation, as it facilitates knowledge sharing and working flexibility – in turn maximising cross departmental resources and optimising business outcomes.
However, collective projects made possible by digital transformation, must have the backing of senior executives, or otherwise they will fail, just like the wiki.
But most often, an organisation implementing digital transformation remains resistant to change at an organisational level.
Traditional heads of department do not want to lose power to leaders of newly established cross departmental business units.
The end result is employees are often left confused and frustrated, with a common refrain being:
“It is business as usual with more political issues and pressure.”
An experience that can be catastrophic for companies, with many employees, caught up in digital transformation projects, burning out – leading to a massive turnover of staff.
Many organisations believe that introducing digitalisation will boost business units, as they can capitalise on online cross platforms to work and share knowledge.
But, if senior management doesn’t support and value it, it will be impossible for employees to spend the required time innovating within business units.
Eventually they will be torn apart between their line managers’ requests and their involvement on transversal projects.
Their team leader, responsible for assessing them, will likely prioritise their work in the department rather than transversal involvement.
Support the process
In order to digitally transform successfully, senior managers must change the way they encourage learnability and collective intelligence to develop innovation – so too does the organisation as a whole.
Middle managers, despite their changing roles, are still the vessel of the company’s core values and governance strategy and must be brought on board.
If individual department results remain more valued than collective strategy, digitalisation will only confuse and divide the company; rather than helping transform and optimise it.
Before embarking on digital transformation, companies must develop and define their values and organisational structure, to ensure they can incorporate and optimise a digital culture.
It’s an imperative if the transformation is to overcome the initial inertia and resistance from sections of company governance and management.
Change management consultant, Nelly Jimenez has spent more than a decade working with French consultancies, including Mazars-Alter&Go and Herdia, helping multinationals digitally transform their internal operations.