Essential Management Skill in the Digital Era

Two workers assembling a robot in a factory
••• Hero Images/GettyImages

Predictions about the future of business sound very much like what we might expect to see in a science fiction movie from Hollywood:

  • Work will be monitored and controlled by increasingly intelligent machines and fewer human workers.
  • Drawing upon advanced artificial intelligence algorithms and vast quantities of real-time real big data, these machines will select strategies, tailor offerings and tactics and monitor fulfillment, all without human intervention.
  • Factories will run by remote control.
  • Deliveries will be facilitated by driverless cars and trucks as well as drones. 
  • In a nod to some of the best science fiction stories, problems will be resolved before they happen based on complicated predictive analytics engines drawing real-time input from a vast array of billions of sensors. 

    While we might not realize this prelude-to-Terminator science fiction world of work in the next few years, there is little doubt that the role of manager and tactics for managing and leading will change in this emerging digital era. This article offers guidance for any manager interested in remaining viable and valuable as the future unfolds advancement by advancement.

    10 Not So Far-Fetched Predictions About the World of Work: 

    1. Communication technologies continue to advance to enable high quality, real-time engagement with distributed teams and communities.
    2. The currently unfulfilled promise of Big Data will increasingly be realized as organizations learn to wrestle this beast with newer technologies, smarter algorithms, and organizations structured to treat data as a strategic life-force.
    3. Routine work will increasingly be automated freeing up positions, time and bandwidth for all workers.
    4. Innovation will occur in open source style with communities solving problems and sharing ideas and feedback.
    1. Projects will be recognized as the engines of creation and project management practices will expand to take advantage of the new tools for communication, monitoring, reporting and collaboration. The routine work of monitoring discrete tasks will be automated and project team members and the project manager will be free to focus on problem-solving and creation.
    2. The promise of virtual teams will finally be realized based on the advancements in communication technologies.
    3. Decision-making will be increasingly data-driven and more routine decisions will be handled by machines.
    1. Organizations will flatten and spread horizontally and advancement will be based on ability to contribute value and less on the ability to do more at a higher level.
    2. Managers will coach and support and facilitate, but not oversee day-to-day work.
    3. There will be fewer managers.

    For Managers, It’s a Role in Transition:

    The above points are exciting to ponder, yet for most of us, this future is somewhere over the horizon. Not every firm will adopt technology at the pace of an Uber or other firm born of digital DNA.

    Most organizations will evolve at the speed of their industries and competitors, with outside forces ultimately governing that speed. And in all of this excitement and turmoil and advancement, managers will still manage.

    Yet, those striving to remain relevant, particularly individuals at the front-end of their careers, must work deliberately at developing the skills that fit with the trends that will shape tomorrow. The balance of this article explores four critical areas where managers must invest in growing and tuning their skills. 

    Four Key Areas Managers Must Strengthen to Remain Relevant:

    1. Technical agility. Even formerly creative domains such as marketing are increasingly dominated by quantitative-focused technologists. There is no room for avoiding technology. Seek every opportunity in your work life to gain training on the latest programs and applications. Work in your personal life to understand and even participate in the trends around social, mobile, apps and others. Like it or not, your world is a technology driven world and if you fail to keep learning, you will be moving backward at the speed of change.
    1. Data agility. A great many managers still operate by gut instinct and prefer their own experiences to crunching the data. There are many challenges with data, including quality, relevance, accuracy, completeness etc., yet all of us are on the hook for learning to leverage the tools. As a veteran manager, I am unwilling to blindly trust data without understanding the assumptions and limitations, nonetheless, I am happy to factor data into my decision-making.
    2. Project agility. As routine work is increasingly automated, the work of projects will focus on innovation, infrastructure modernization and strategy execution. The role of project manager or project sponsor will grow in importance and effective managers will understand how to fulfill these roles and better support their teams.
    1. Networking agility. As organizations compress, the focus of work will be horizontal and not vertical within a function. Managers will increasingly be called upon to organize temporary coalitions to seize emerging opportunities and squash fast-moving threats. Additionally, as projects take on increasing significance, answers to key issues will reside somewhere outside of the traditional functions. An effective network that can tap into the right resources at the right time will be essential.

    The Bottom Line

    Admittedly, predicting the future by looking at a list of trends is much like predicting the taste of a dessert by looking at the list of ingredients. Nonetheless, the trends around communication, democratization of information and the work of innovation are fairly clear.

    The ultimate incarnation of technology might resemble the opening description in this article, but in the meantime, there’s a great deal of work for managers able to command the new technologies in support of creation and business execution. For those who allow technology to pass them by, the future will be a lot less accommodating.