Managing in the Digital Age: Over the Edge?
by Henry Mintzberg

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Managing does not change, not fundamentally. It is a practice, rooted in art and craft, not a science or a profession, focused on analysis. The subject matter of managing certainly changes, all the time, as do the styles that some managers favor, but not the basic practice.


There is, however, one evident change in recent times that is influencing the practice of managing: the new digital technologies, which have dramatically increased speed and volume in the transmission of information. Have their impacts on managing been likewise dramatic?


My answer is yes and no. No, because these technologies mainly reinforce the very characteristics that have long prevailed in managerial work. But yes, because this very fact may mean that the practice of managing is being driven over the edge.


What are these characteristics of managing? As I discuss in Simply Managing (and also observed long ago in The Nature of Managerial Work), managing is hectic: it is fast-paced, high-pressured, and frequently interrupted. In the words of one chief executive, managing is “one damn thing after another.” This is an action-oriented job. It is also significantly communicative: managers do a lot of talking and listening. Traditionally this has meant the job is mostly oral. And managing has generally been lateral as well as hierarchical: research has found that managers spend at least as much time with people outside their units as with those inside. Observe some managers as I did for the recent book (from a head nurse to a corporate CEO, in settings from a bank to a refugee camp), and you will likely see pretty much all of this. Does this suggest that there is a lot of bad managing out there? Not at all. It describes normal managing—inevitable managing.


Now let’s enter the digital age: how does it affect these characteristics of managing? Niels Bohr reportedly quipped that “prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.” So let’s focus on the present, and the innovations in communications technology that managers have been most eager to embrace, particularly email


One thing seems certain: the ability to be in communication instantly with people anywhere increases the pace and pressure of managing, and likely the interruptions as well. But don’t be fooled. I found in my original research, long before anyone heard the words “you’ve got mail!”, that many managers choose to be interrupted. The new technologies bolster this. No one forces any manager to check messages the moment they arrive. And how many require the immediate replies they get? One CEO told an interviewer: “You can never escape. You can’t go anywhere to contemplate, or think.” Well of course you can. You can go anywhere you please.


Internet connectivity has hardly reduced the managerial orientation to action – and the disinclination to engage in reflection. Quite the contrary: everything has to be fast, fast, now, now. How ironic that heavier reliance on information technology, technically removed from the action (picture the manager facing a screen), would exacerbate the action orientation of managing. With all those electrons flying about, the hyperactivity gets worse, not better. (Check your messages Sunday night; your boss has probably called a meeting for Monday morning.)


Of course, more time gazing at the screen and tapping away at the keyboard means less time spent talking and listening. There are only so many hours in every day. Yes, 24. But text-based vehicles like email are thin – limited to the poverty of words alone. There is no tone of voice to hear, no gestures to see, no presence to feel. Managing can be about interpreting and using these as much as it is about the comprehension of content. On the telephone, people laugh, interrupt, grunt; in meetings, they nod in agreement or nod off in distraction. Effective managers pick up on such clues. With e-mail, you don’t quite know how someone has reacted until the reply comes back, and even then you cannot be sure if the words were carefully chosen or sent in haste. I once met a senior governmental official who boasted that he kept in touch with his staff by email early every morning. In touch with a keyboard perhaps, but his staff?


Finally, the new communications technologies, and in particular the social media, certainly push the lateral tendencies of managing further by making it easier to establish new contacts and keep “in touch” with existing ones. It has always been true that the people who report to a manager are few and fixed compared with that manager’s network of external contacts. Today, thanks to these media, it is exponentially more true. And so managers’ own reports may be getting less of their time—in quality as well as quantity.


As usual, the devil of these new technologies can be found in the details. Changes of degree can have profound effects, amounting to changes of kind. When hectic becomes frenetic, managers lose it and become a menace to what is around them. The Internet, by giving the illusion of control, may in fact be robbing many managers of control over their own work.


The characteristics of managing described at the outset are normal only within limits. Exceed them, and the practice of management can become dysfunctional. Put differently, this digital age may be driving much management practice over the edge, making it too remote and too superficial.


Perhaps the ultimately connected manager has become disconnected from what matters. Might therefore the new technologies be destroying the practice of managing itself, and thus impoverishing our organizations, and societies? We don’t yet know—there is more inclination to glorify new technologies than to investigate them. But look around you—at a colleague who burned out, at a boss who drives everyone crazy, at yourself and the kids you may rarely see. And then consider this:  are these tools augmenting our best qualities or our worst?  Each of us, manager or not, can be mesmerized by them, and so let them manage us. Or we can understand their dangers as well as their delights, and so manage them.


About the author:

Henry Mintzberg, Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies at McGill University, is the author of Rebalancing Society, and a weekly TWOG.

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