Source: Financial Times, February 26, 2009
Where the managerial glue came unstuck
The Truth About Middle Managers
Who They Are, How They Work, Why They Matter
By Paul Osterman
Reports of the death of middle management were not merely exaggerated, they were wrong. Yes, the current 'white collar' recession is having a big impact on the middle tier of professionals within businesses. But no, middle managers have not been abolished. They are still here, hard at work.
That is one reason why this new book is welcome. It attempts to take a serious look at the reality of middle management. The author, Paul Osterman, is Professor of Human Resources and Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Osterman has made a sincere attempt to shed more light on this under-analysed cadre of managers. Sincere but also, regrettably, flawed.
The author defines his terms clearly enough. 'Senior management makes the decisions that set the organization's course, whereas middle management interprets and executes those decisions,' he writes. Based on his research, Osterman tests some of the common assumptions made about middle managers.
It is not true, he argues, that middle managers are sinking into a pit of despair as their numbers fall and job insecurity rises. In fact, in the US at any rate, there are more managers than ever. They are 'less secure, but more in demand'.
Nor is it true, Osterman asserts, that middle managers are alienated from their work and have little commitment to what they do. 'Middle managers are the glue that holds organizations together,' he writes. 'Middle managers very much enjoy what they do and have what I term a strong craft commitment to their work.' But it is also true, he concedes, that 'they have lost their loyalty to their firm'.
Organizations have delayered and they are also delayering today… Yet there are still middle managers needed. What role(s) do middle managers play when they are effective in organizations?
Source: Stefan Stern, Financial Times, February 26, 2009
To establish a context, Osterman offers a brief but useful history of the emergence of middle management. He acknowledges Alfred Chandler's contribution. It was Chandler who, in The Visible Hand, argued that middle management lay behind the remarkable growth of the American economy in the 20th century, Great US corporations – General Electric, IBM, AT&T – hired vast numbers of people to staff large bureaucracies. They enjoyed steady if unspectacular career progress. These were the Organization Men who clung on until the early 1980s recession. Downsizing and delayering brought their time to an end.
The key text justifying this clear-out was Michael Hammer and James Champy'sRe-engineering The Corporation (1993). Osterman cites their influential analysis: 'Companies no longer require as much managerial "glue" as they used to,' they wrote.
Fast-forward to today. 'As organizations have divested themselves of managerial levels, core managerial responsibilities have been pushed down to middle management,' Osterman writes. 'Middle managers are now the negotiators between different interests and are making key decisions about trade-offs.'
That is certainly true. As is his other observation: 'In the past the nature of the firm was stable, whereas today it is constantly being reconsidered and reshaped. The continuous organizational turmoil that ensues creates en environment that seems chaotic and out of control from the perspective of middle management.' So why, since Osterman seems to understand so clearly all that middle managers have to wrestle with, has he come up with some relatively sunny conclusions?
A key part of the research for this book involved in-depth interviews with 50 middle managers from two separate organizations, a bank and a high-tech company. But these interviews were conducted in 2004 and 2005. How were your prospects back then? A lot better than today, we can assume. Second, who were these managers? Osterman explains: 'The middle managers were chosen randomly from a list provided by the human resources staff in each organization.' Did HR allow any malcontents, whingers and otherwise less-than-upbeat people to be interviewed? It seems unlikely.
So we must be sceptical - insecurity is real, not imagined. Disillusionment is widespread. As one of his witnesses said, even then: 'I think if you went around and asked people if they had a choice today whether they'd take a job or take the [redundancy] package, you'd get a fair number of people whose hands would be raised for the package - mine included.'
This comment is quite sceptical on Osterman's truth about middle managers. Formulate your own opinion based on what you read in Management Theory and what you found on delayering in middle management.
Delayering Organizations, Keuning, D. et all., Pitman Publishing, 1994.