Digital Transformation and the key role of middle managers

Over time we’re starting to have a good understanding of how digital transformation should be driven, what works and what does not.

Executive managers are aware of the matter without always understanding it. So they often struggle to articulate a clear ambition, personify the future and set the pace. In other words they’re passing the monkey to the layer under them.

Employees get it much better but struggle to connect their personal experience (often usage driven) and the corporate ambition (business strategy driven) and, most of all, to understand what’s expected from them and how they’ll be taken to the final destination.

So businesses rely on middle managers to make sense of digital transformation since employees expect them to play this role.

In short, digital transformation is struggling to land and is stuck at an intermediate flight level, the one where only big clouds and turbulences can be found.

I found a lot of very valuable insights on how middle managers are going through digital transformation in this recent study conducted by Cécile Demailly for Early Strategies with interest.

Here are some learnings I’d like to share.

Middle Managers are not hopeless at digital

….at least in their own opinion.

Middle Managers consider being comfortable with digital technologies, most of all with communication tools. They even think they’re quite good at this.

But executive managers are neither helpful nor supportive

The point is that the use of these tools at work is impeded by executive managers. Digital is a matter of freedom and autonomy, two things middle managers should support regarding to their own staff but that are not given to them by the upper layer while they’re being asked to lead change on the field.

Even worse, the expectations of executive leaders are not clear, neither are the goals they set.

Very little autonomy, very little recognition and gratitude while being forced to take initiatives : middle managers are left to their own devices.

Middle Managers have to prove themselves again

Middle Managers are aware that  authority and legitimacy don’t derive from their status anymore in a digital culture. They will have to deserve and earn it every day by shifting from a command/control approach to a leadership based one.

Corporate culture does not help

The main barrier to theses evolutions remains the corporate culture that has not embraced this changes yet and does not reflect the leader’s ambition to change. Middle managers are left alone to drive change et put the organization in motion.

In my opinion, culture is a too easy suspect to blame when one has not the courage to do the right things, but not in this case. Digital faces the same issues as collaboration used  to do : the sum of individual maturities is not a collective maturity. The cultural capability a business has to transform does depend on how mature are the most advanced employees but on the lowest common denominator shared by the large majority.

Middle Managers are drowning in digital

Middle managers are drowning both in too many tools and too much information. But I think his staff suffers exactly from the same pain.

I see that as the consequence of two issues.

The first can be managed at the individual level : learning to manage information flows is a key competence one acquire by doing and the current workforce is not that good at that. It’s a double issue for middle managers as they are suffering from but have to guide and help their staff through oceans of information at the same time. They have to help them separating the wheat from the chaff and even act as curators.

The second is the result of the time leaders took to pay attention to digital transformation and to articulate a concrete vision. No concrete and workable vision cause a poor governance and, in the end, business end up with many initiatives, some being usage-driven, others being technology driven. The problem is that most of these initiatives are competing ones and fragment a work environment that was already too fragmented.

A matter of digital leadership

Middle managers have what I call a digital leadership problem. They have to personify, online and offline, management behaviors that are new. Call it augmented or omnichanel management, the issue is real and not far to be fixed.

One the first consequences – and the study highlights it – is that managers have to help their staff going through a new paradigm made of uncertainty and complexity while they’re not comfortable with it themselves.

However I think that if this problem is really experienced as such, it’s not really the consequence of the digital transformation of the business. It’s the result of the transformation of the word itself and has been on its way for years, whether businesses were transforming or not. Digital highlights an issue that’s not new and is also a part of the response.

Once again, seeing digital as the problem or the solution depends on leaders – and then managers – to make sense of digital transformation.

Paradoxical injunctions are the usual burden of middle managers

The current situation is nothing new. Middle managers are at the point where four tectonic plates meet :

• The top management one, that asks them to make sense of an unclear vision without setting clear expectations and leading by the example.

• the employee one, who gets what’s at stake but as looking for sensemaking, guidance and support.

• the day to day business one that asks to make the current business work

• the “tomorrow’s digital enterprise” one to which he must lead his staff.

The whole without a clear blueprint (at least a non technological one) and in businesses that are clearly in denial of the fact that the software that’s the hardest to upgrade is the human software. Change and acculturation cannot be programmed, everyone knows it but forget it when it comes to deliver transformation.

Digitally speaking, middle managers are the symptom, not the problem

And this will be my conclusion. As often when it comes to transformation one should not shoot the messenger. And Yet… There’s obviously something wrong at the intermediate level but it’s a consequence rather than a cause. The report highlights a digital divide between executive and middle managers that is, in my opinion, at least as important as the other divides businesses are suffering form.

The cause is related to the very nature of the change at stake and the role of the C-Suite. Until now, when technology was at stake, the C-Suite used to decide and others had to deploy it and make it work. Leaders where concerned, not involved. They did not have to change and being exemplary was secondary.

In digital, personifying the ambition is critical to reassure, build trust, make sense of things regarding to a major change that requires everyone to explore unknown lands. Middle managers and employees have the impression that they’re alone in this journey, having to turn a vision into a change program without having the means to do so.

You can download the report in english here.

Photo Crédit : Maze by ra2studio via Shutterstock

Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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