Henry Mintzberg: Managing People & Technology

  • February 7, 2019

It’s no secret that working remotely and digital communication tools are becoming more commonplace  in professional settings – but how does new technology change management styles? More importantly, how can we better manage technology so that it's not managing us? Here, world-renowned management expert and scholar Henry Mintzberg explores the impact of the Internet on management.

The Characteristics of Managing

Fundamentally, managing does not change. It’s a practice rooted in art and craft, not a science or a profession based on analysis. The subject matter of managing may change, but the effective practice does not.

Does this mean that the new digital technologies, especially email, haven’t changed the basic practice of managing? Yes, except in one particular respect: by intensifying the characteristics that have long prevailed in practice, they are throwing too much of it over the edge.

As I found in my own initial research, managing is a hectic job: fast-paced, high-pressured, action-oriented, frequently interrupted. In the words of one chief executive, managing is “one damn thing after another.”

The job is also largely oral: managers do a lot more talking and listening than reading and writing. And they do this communicating laterally as much as hierarchically: most managers spend at least as much time with people outside their units as with those inside. All of this is not bad managing; it is normal managing.

The Impact of the Internet

How, then, do the new digital technologies, especially email, affect management styles?

One thing seems certain: the capacity to communicate instantly with people everywhere increases the pace and pressure of managing—and likely the interruptions as well. If you’ve got mail, you’d better answer it right away. But don’t be fooled. Even before the internet, there was evidence that managers chose to be interrupted. Now more do so by checking messages at every little ping! And replying immediately. One corporate CEO told an interviewer: “You can never escape. You can’t go anywhere to contemplate or think.” Not true: you can go anywhere you please.

Internet connectivity has intensified managers’ orientation to action: everything is expected to be faster, immediate. How ironic that a technology literally removed from the action—picture a manager facing a screen—exacerbates the action orientation of managing. With all those electrons flying about, the hyperactivity gets worse. (If you are reading this bedtime story on a Sunday evening, check your email because your boss—or you!—may have just called a meeting for Monday morning.)

Of course, more time reading on the screen and writing on the keyboard means less time talking and listening to people face-to-face. There are only so many hours in every day. How many more of them are you now devoting to such reading and writing, instead of being with the staff, or the kids, or getting some decent sleep (after reading this story)?

Email is limited to the words of poverty alone

There is no tone of voice to hear, no gesture to see, no presence to feel. Yet managing depends on this kind of information too. On the telephone people laugh or grunt; in meetings they nod in agreement or not off in distraction. Astute managers pick up on these signals.

Of course, email has made it easier to keep “in touch” with a wide network of contacts all over the world. But how about colleagues down the hall? Does sitting in front of a screen put you out of touch with them? A senior government official I met boasted that he kept in touch with his staff through email early every morning. In touch with a keyboard perhaps, but with his staff?

Don’t let new technologies manage you

These fast-paced characteristics of managing are normal only within limits. Exceed them at your own risk. The devil of the new technologies can be found in the details: when hectic becomes frenetic, a manager can lose control of the job and become a menace to the organization. The internet, by giving the illusion of control, may in fact be robbing many managers of control over their own work.

Thus this digital age may be driving much management practice over the edge, making it too remote and superficial. So don’t let the new technologies manage you: Don’t allow yourself to be mesmerized by them. Understand their dangers as well as their delights so that you can manage them. Turn them off. Sweet dreams!

This post is an adapted excerpt from Bedtime Stories for Managers, the latest book from world-renowned management expert and scholar Henry Mintzberg. Mintzberg is the Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies at McGill University in Montreal, the winner of awards from the most prestigious academic and practitioner institutions in management (Harvard Business Review, Academy of Management, Association of Management Consulting Firms, and others), and the recipient of twenty honorary degrees from around the world. He is the author or coauthor of fifteen books, including Managers Not MBAs, Strategy Safari, and The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning, and is a founding partner of CoachingOurselves.com.


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