The Future of Management
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“If you want to retain those who are present, be loyal to those who are absent.”

-- Dr. Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

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-- Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline

“The most important measures are both unknown and unknowable.”

-- W. Edwards Deming, Out of the Crisis


The Future of Management by Kevin McManus

First published in Industrial Engineer magazine September 2003

I continue to be haunted by a statement that I heard Tom Peters make at a conference over five years ago – in the last century. At that time, he was preaching about the need for white-collar employees to re-invent themselves. To help emphasize the need for change, he stated that within ten years, 90 percent of the white-collar jobs as they exist today would be eliminated. I saw the logic in his arguments, and I actually looked forward to seeing some of the fat taken out of the upper layers of management.

Five years later, a mass exodus of upper managers is not evident. At the same time however, there is not a high demand for new upper managers either. If we assume that growth is occurring in our business sector overall, we are thinning out the ranks by not hiring to keep pace with the growth that is occurring. That said, we are still a good ways away from realizing the 90 percent reduction in white-collar jobs. We still have hope though – there are five years left for Mr. Peters' prediction to come true!

Technology has, and will continue to, serve as a key driver in making this reduction more probable. Travel time as a percent of one's work time serves as just one example of where technology has begun to take waste out of the jobs of upper management. We are just beginning to see the true effects of video streaming technology and faster bandwidths on a mass scale however, so we can almost assuredly expect to see additional time savings of this nature.

What will upper management look like ten years from now? Are we just beginning to see a dramatic shift in the way middle and upper managers spend their time at work each day? Will the pace of this change accelerate over the next two to three years? These are the questions that haunt me as a person who has been an upper manager, and who may aspire to serve in that capacity to some degree for at least ten to fifteen years into the future.

I believe that major change is needed. I have spent significant time on both sides of the management fence. The jobs are drastically different, and there is waste associated with each that could be removed. Upper managers spend most of their time talking to other people or listening to other people talk, whether it is in meetings, training, or on the phone. I am not convinced that we have mastered the art of group communication, especially when it comes to dialogue, and in turn, I think we will eventually begin to expect higher levels of productivity from these interactions.

I also see a lot of managers who are still using paper, even though each use represents rework from a digital perspective, not to mention a negative impact on the environment. Soon, we will be able to see a visual example of the generation gap in any large meeting we attend, as the older, less tech-savvy managers continue to take notes on paper while their younger peers (for now) use tablet PCs. It may seem like I am both picking on management and older members of that group in particular, but since I fall into both categories, I feel that I empathize with others who are attempting to catch up digitally on an ongoing basis.

As information for decision-making becomes more and more available, management will not be relied on as much for this purpose. As the need for business agility and flexibility become even more critical in order to meet the ever rising expectations of the customer, we will not have the luxury of even taking the time to walk to and from a meeting room to make a decision – we will need to be able to make key decisions on the fly, using the vast amount of information that we will have with us at all times.

As each wave of new technology gains mass acceptance, we will see the jobs of middle and upper management change more and more. The changes will become tangible to the greatest degree in the larger organizations that can afford to change their communications infrastructures first and to the greatest extent. Travel industry performance metrics will serve as a leading indicator that change is occurring in the management ranks, as will the demand for such jobs, both in volume and by title.

What will the rate of change be however? As the shift in management's future role is driven by technology, we can assume that the rate of change is exponential, but where are we at on the curve right now? Are we just beginning to go up the really steep part of the curve, or have we already experienced the most change in a given amount of time that we are going to? Personally, I believe that we are just beginning to accelerate towards a new management future.

The intrigue and significance associated with this change are heightened by the fact that there are at least two distinct groups of managers that going to be affected by this change. Many of us BC (Before Computers) managers may only plan to work for ten to fifteen more years, but we will face a lot of change during that time, especially if we have personally failed to stay somewhat abreast of the changes that are occurring from an information use and flow perspective. The probability that someone else will select the dates of our retirement will also go up as we move forward in time.

The second group of affected managers will be the AC (After Computers) managers. They want this change to happen, as they are put off by the waste that they perceive to exist in the way people do things in the company. Credibility is the first thing that begins to suffer when BC and AC managers interact and both groups are not on the same level technologically. We will need to manage this generation gap over the next five to ten years if we want to have cohesive management teams. I believe that we are already seeing an increase in friction between generations at work, especially when a younger manager is trying to get an older employee to try something new.

How we spend our time and how we spend our money is what really separates the good managers from those that are below average. Making wise decisions, helping others develop and learn, and improving systems through the use of information will remain as key managerial skills and practices in the coming years. If we choose to learn to use the tools that we have at our disposal as they emerge, we can drastically alter both the perception of what management is and what it exists for. What do you think will happen?

It is highly possible that we will actually see a shift towards the use of more data (facts) to make decisions in the future. It is possible that meetings will actually become a desired thing to take part in. We may actually find that we start learning a lot more in a training session than we ever used to. I might actually still be working when flip charts, overhead projectors, and daily paperwork are only fond workplace memories. Only time will tell.

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