Forget the Robot Revolution… Let’s talk about Revolutionizing Middle Management

By Laurie Clarke

The World Economic Forum expects over five million jobs will switch ownership from humans to robots in the next five years.

Concern about the predicted ‘Great Displacement of the Human Workforce’ is growing. More nervous than those in customer service, financial planning and risk assessment, are people in middle management.

The technological advancement we are graduating into now, and in the next 10 years, can finally propose a future for managers, and release companies from middle management’s choke-hold that has crippled businesses from changing, and accelerating the pace of innovation in their field.

If we are able to delegate duties like record keeping, data mining and analysis, and eventually problem-solving and logical reasoning, middle managers can finally be utilized in a manner that best serves a business and its customers.
Before we get into a Tweet-off, let me note a necessary clarification. I am not making an argument for the elimination of middle management. I am talking about reimagining that layer of control that often, to lesser fault of middle managers, cements companies in what is old and underserving to its business.

The current systemization of middle management does not work. Middle managers are hired to support teams, but end up spending most of their days pushing paper and solving operational issues.

That is not what middle managers should be doing. If that work can be delegated to AI, we can graduate middle management into serving the health of the organization. This means giving them the bandwidth, tools and skills to help move high-potential employees into leadership roles, and develop talent to most effectively support the business and meet the needs of the customer.

Recently, a University of Toronto Professor talked about how having technology support for data mining and sorting freed up hours of time dedicated to research. What this meant for him and students was big. With more time, he said he was no longer “limited to teach 25 students at a time,” and could “teach up to 250 students.”

With developments in AI, there are certain human capabilities we cannot augment, so managers will always be in demand, and companies will always need middle management support.

According to a recent study, current AI has achieved different levels of human performance, especially around pattern recognition, information retrieval, and navigation. We are also beginning to see advancements in capabilities including delivering messages with nuanced human interaction.

The same study has also highlighted the human capabilities we are finding difficult to automate: human creativity, comprehending various human behaviour, social and emotional sensing, and feelings.

AI should not be seen as a substitute for human work but as catalysts to better deliver what we do best: being human. That includes thinking of out-of-the-box ideas to solve systemic issues, engaging with each other to coordinate and plan, understand and respond to each other’s emotions, pull and build raw talent, and empathize and support people.

Step aside. Give automated bots the problem solving issues, the data mining and sorting, the paper-pushing work. The more time middle managers save not doing those tasks, the more time they have to build their communication skills, their facilitation skills, and their teaching skills to drive high-potential employees into executive roles.

We have an opportunity to fundamentally change organizational design by encouraging companies to rethink their entire hierarchy model. The current system has an inherent flaw. If you are not on the road to leadership, you have no career path.

To get promoted, you have to manage people. That’s a problem, because a) not everyone is conditioned to manage, and b) not everyone has the raw talents to lead others. Long live the Peter Principle, eh?

It is this business design that causes an uncomfortable (and costly) swell in its mid-level because it is the only way of retaining people – through promotions of title and scope of control. This is problematic because it not only compromises service to the customer, it doesn’t solve anything. All it achieves is middle managers gripping onto what has taken them so far because they lack a career path forward.

Within the current system, middle managers are the keepers of old culture, which means they are your company’s greatest resistors to change.

Let’s recognize what possibilities developments in automation have toward bettering businesses. It can help eliminate the biggest constraint and source of resistance to change and flexibility, allowing organizations to accelerate the pace of change, and finally innovate. It can support middle managers by creating an opportunity for them to facilitate, teach and empower staff. It can help create greater movement of talent within a business, making everyone from leadership to those employed, happier.

Let’s move past the narrative of automation causing the great depression in human employment – because that does not have to occur. Companies need to do the work to develop middle managers to what they should have already been doing – developing leaders of tomorrow.

Laurie Clarke is the Chief Operating Officer at The Tatham Group.