vol 5 issue 1

The 2020 visionary manager

19 January 2010
By Nick Smith
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Modern business meeting

Pondering the future of business and the impact on our working lives

According to professional futurologists, in a decade’s time our working lives will be unrecognisable. So what are the key trends that will affect our lives in 2020? E&T looks at five key areas where our thinking as managers might be forced to change…

The big problem with the future, as leading futurologist Michio Kaku observes, is that it never arrives on time. We can predict that by the year 3000 we might have evolved an extra set of eyes or electrical circuitry to charge our thought-controlled life-pods, or one of a million sci-fi clichés. We can all have fun making long-range predictions, because technology moves fast.

Even 2020 feels a long way off, but the things we are doing now will shape what happens when we get there. What are the obvious trends right now? Desktop computers will gather dust as we become more reliant on mobile phones, we will deal less and less with cash and social networking software threatens to merge our private and professional lives to the point where the two are indistinguishable.

More and more professionals will be working for themselves - despite the tightening of personal taxation regulations - selling their skills to organisations, rather than their time. The role of the manager will become more akin to that of a sheepdog, rounding up the strays that form the distributed network of contractors. Head office will be a lonely place, and for some managers, theirs will be the only car in the car park. But will there be any big mind-shifts in the way we fundamentally approach the concept of managing the future and the future of management?

Over the next decade, probably not, unless a hitherto unknown guru emerges to inspire a revolution at international governmental level. This is because history is littered with examples of change being a matter of last resort, with most people from blue chip management to shop floor workers reluctant to embrace anything new. If you commute by public transport it’s odds-on that your bus or train will have been in service a decade earlier (production of London’s Routemaster buses stopped in 1968 and yet a few are still operating). If you work for a big organisation you’ll still be using out of date PCs, while the self-employed will be complaining that their home office technology is too sophisticated to communicate effectively with the mothership. And unless something drastic happens, we’ll still be flying around the world for face-to-face meetings.

So what are the big issues? What are the consequences of changing the way we as managers think in the short to midterm?

The rise of the accidental manager

According to a recent survey by the Chartered Management Institute (CMI), 68 per cent of managers in the UK today are ‘accidental’ managers. Such people probably never had any leadership ambitions, but were propelled into the role as a side effect of promotion. Rather worryingly, a small proportion of these managers don’t want to manage and have no desire to acquire management skills. Ruth Spellman, CMI chief executive says: “It’s not surprising bad management is such an issue in the UK. We invest less in our managers than our global competitors and it shows. It’s telling that the majority of individuals never set out to manage people, and have not been trained to do so. If we’re going to stay competitive internationally, the government and employers need to address this worrying skills gap.  In what other profession would it be acceptable for only a quarter of practitioners to hold a professional qualification?”

Prediction: Unless the route to management becomes inspirational rather than reluctant, the perception of management in the UK will decline even further by 2020.

The staff-less manager - where are my people?

Most management consultants agree that the number of direct reports (DRs) you have is one of the key influences on your success. Research has shown that more than 30 and there is a serious risk of not being able to effectively manage your team, while a paper by the McDonald Consulting Group expresses the widely held belief that 15 DRs is the optimum figure. But the issue facing managers over the next decade is not so much how many DRs he or she may have, but what the relationship with these team members will be. More and more aspects of project work will be outsourced but managed internally, giving rise to a different dynamic.

Prediction: There will be a widespread drift towards taking responsibility for our own employment, reaping the benefits of flexible work.

Evolution of ethical management?

For many of us even the idea of ethical management is enough to get us spluttering into our beer.

The entrenched cliché we seem to have inherited is of the materially acquisitive spiv in a double-breasted suit cynically exploiting the workforce in a merciless attempt to increase productivity, while union bosses try to bring down the organisations that pay their members’ wages. Well the news is that this scenario - if it ever existed - belongs to the 1970s. The truth is that until comparatively recently the only reasons to employ an ethical stance have been to address legal compliance issues. But this will change as the employment axis skews and it becomes an employee’s market. This of course will only happen if the economy is strong, when a mobile workforce is a vocal one.

Prediction: Whether companies are legally forced to introduce ethical policies or not, most will see a virtue in making their workplace reflect the social ideologies of their employees.

Who’s the boss of the future?

In their book ‘Servant Leadership Across Cultures’, Fons Trompenaars and Ed Voerman foresee a revolution in the way we work. In the past the relationship between employer and employee has been one of ‘master and servant’. The employee obtains financial stability for compliance with the desires of the corporation. But, they argue, in future the manager - or leader - will be the servant to their team. Instead of diktats being handed down with unrealistic expectations, the workforce decides, referring back up the chain just for ratification. A utopian dream? Maybe not. The extremely successful privately owned multinational W L Gore Associates has spent half a century running its business on the ‘flat lattice’.

Prediction: By 2020 more innovative companies will try management styles where the workforce has a greater say in how they are managed.

How green was my company?

According to Social Funds, a website responsible for socially responsible investments, ‘research shows that employees want to work at green companies and are happiest at companies with solid corporate social responsibility programs in place’. But will companies be greener a just ten years from now? On a practical level you can trawl the Internet for websites such as NetRegs that provide technical data on regulations regarding the disposal of detergents, hazardous waste, carbon reduction commitments (CRCs). The Environment Agency can also provide guidelines for sectors such as power, food processing, and construction on environmental issues. But, who will be leading the way? What about top-down initiatives driving design for recyclability, voluntary use of ethically-sources material and components? According to one commentator: ‘This will be the slowest area of improvement in the way we run our business. Until it makes financial sense to adopt environmentally sensitive practices or there are substantial punitive consequences for malpractice, business will continue to operate as it did in the Dark Ages.’

Prediction: Slow uptake in voluntary adoption of environmental practices.

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