CXO

Peter Cochrane's Blog: Know-nothing managers

Why are they so common?

Written at the Membury Service Station on the M4 Motorway whilst transiting from Cardiff to Woodbridge. Dispatched to silicon.com via public wi-fi.

In the middle of a legal trial involving technology, a high court judge declares he doesn't know what a website is. In a boardroom a CEO reveals that a secretary prints out his email for him. In a meeting a senior manager responsible for IT in a multinational company admits he has no real knowledge or understanding of software or systems - and yet has the signing authority for millions of dollars of spend per year.

These days people who have zip technical training or experience are managing some of the biggest IT projects on the planet.

What is happening and how do such people survive?

I think we are witnessing the result of the rise of the professional manager - someone who would see and approach the management of a high-tech company with the same enthusiasm and ability they would bring to the management of a hotel!

Almost everywhere I go there is a common blight expressed by people relating to the state of modern management. Most simply stated it goes like this: 20 to 30 years ago people would go to their manager for advice, help and knowledge. Most managers had done the job, had worked their way up and understood the operations, technology and customer. Today this is no longer generally true. Most managers seem to come in from the side with a broad range of (irrelevant?) skills and little ability to add real value.

A net result is the rising tide of 30- to 40-year-old staffers who have one major ambition: to leave the big company and start their own. The exception seems to be the big companies born of the high-tech start-ups over the past 10 to 20 years. This is a different world! Managers have to understand both business and technology or they add no value and ultimately don't survive.

I now meet youngsters entering university with the ambition of becoming 'a manager' when they graduate. Ouch! How can they ever be good managers of anything? I don't believe they can without leaving a trail of damage behind them. Being a successful manager requires a lot of understanding, experience and skill beyond the classroom.

Unfortunately this is all compounded by the automation of many management processes that further isolate people from reality. For example, all banking decisions now seem to have been delegated to machines with human knowledge of the local situation reduced to a few limited keystrokes. Efficient and cheap? Oh yes! Fully effective? Not very often!

The net result for many employees and customers is unnecessary work pressure, undue tension and a general lack of satisfaction all round.

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So is there a solution on the horizon? Perhaps! Keep an eye on the progressive virtualisation of companies and the resulting reduction in the number of managers. Also watch the development of business modelling, decision support and knowledge management. But, most of all, watch the tech skilled youngsters entering the workplace who come with new mindsets and modes of operation.

I think we are about to see some radical changes in the workplace that will see the gradual displacement of those unable to contribute real value add. But it will most likely take more than 10 to 20 years to see their total displacement as companies slowly figure out that employing someone without tech skills is about as sensible as recruiting people who are illiterate and innumerate.

About Peter Cochrane

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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