The unintended consequences of digital transformation
Traditionally, when new technology enters the workplace, it doesn’t fundamentally change how the workforce works, it just digitizes an existing work practice – memos have become emails, meetings have become. site have become Zoom calls, for example. Ultimately, however, the processes people go through and the way they are managed would largely remain the same.
But the same cannot be said for digital transformation. When implemented correctly, digital transformation offers organizations the opportunity to fundamentally change the way they operate. It is this aspect of “transformation” that sets it apart from technological implementations of the past.
The challenge is, most people aren’t ready for it – they’re just not ready to be transformed. Those in leadership positions, in particular, which have operated in much the same way since the Industrial Revolution, are certainly about to be shocked when the effects of digital transformation really take hold.
How will digital transformation affect them and is there anything they can do about it?
Managers are not immune to this change
Most of the human stories around digital transformation tend to focus on its impact on frontline workers, especially how it makes certain roles redundant. Do you need as many checkouts with self-service checkouts for example? No, you don’t.
But technological innovations have always made, and will continue to make, certain production roles redundant. Yet despite many technological revolutions, the human race has yet to find itself redundant. We may have fewer coal miners, switchboard operators, chimney sweeps, etc., but people have found rewarding work in other new, often technology-driven industries.
The difference this time around is that the change brought about by digital transformation is not limited to the productive workforce, but also to their managers. And given that the fundamental role of the manager has been largely isolated from all the changes to the workforce under them so far, managers might have a big surprise.
This is because most managers are task-based: they define tasks and check that these tasks are running. This is then reported to their manager, who then reports, in turn, until it finally reaches the board. The “direction” is therefore, most often, above all a line of report to those who are upstream of the chain.
But as task reporting becomes more automated through digital transformation, or tasks themselves become automated, what role does the task-based manager remain? If they can no longer report task completion, what is their role?
A change for the better
Managers need to recognize this change now and adapt to it, just as their staff has had to do for generations. Organizations can help by moving away from task-based reporting lines to values-based and results-based goals. Managers will still have an important role to play in the digitally transformed company, but it will be much more forward-looking and strategic.
Instead of compiling reports and looking back at what has and hasn’t been done, they should focus more on the future. Managers will read reports instead of writing them and make more strategic decisions based on the abundance of data they have, often aided by artificial intelligence analysis.
We are far from the tactical and task-oriented manager that dominates our organizations today. It will require very different skills and mindset, which some managers today may struggle to embrace.
Return management to its roots
Although this change requires us to reassess the role of the manager in modern organizations, in reality, digital transformation is taking management back to its roots. Leadership was never intended to be a point of aggregation for reporting – it’s about generating value by getting the most out of people through nurturing, inspiring and empowering teams.
The impact of digital transformation on managers will ultimately be positive for them, those they lead and their organizations, but only if they embrace it and are ready to transform as well.
Romy Hughes is a director of change management consultancy Brightman.