What Good Are Managers Anyway?


December 2005

What Good Are Managers Anyway?

CIDMIconNewsletter JoAnn Hackos, CIDM Director

In the wake of several unfortunate reorganizations, we’ve found that some of the best managers we know have lost their positions. Just what does it portend for the information-development field when individuals who have been focused on reducing costs, increasing productivity, and holding the line or enhancing quality find themselves replaced by functionaries with no background in the field? In the early 90s, many organizations decimated the ranks of managers but those actions were taken amidst the general thinning of information developers. Certainly, we’re still facing cut backs but managers seem to lose out first.

Of course, others are hiring but in general, I’ve observed that managers are being targeted.

Are managers, especially in information development, that easily expendable? Morgen Witzel, writing in the Business School column in the Financial Times (Monday, November 14, 2005) argues that they are expendable only when they are not managing. He points back to the 1920s when the poor performance of companies was linked to do-nothing managers. Managers were pointed to as people who were completely non-productive, merely making others work and doing nothing much themselves. Karl Marx, among others at the time, argued that management be abolished and control given to productive workers, those who actually added to the “product” of the business. A survey in 1985 found that higher performing companies had fewer managers than lower performers.

As a result, companies still cut managers, especially in areas like information development that they don’t take the time to understand. Especially when everyone is functioning well, often as a result of strong managers, someone higher up (a manager, of course) decides that the staff can manage on its own. After all, aren’t they the ones doing the real work?

Witzel, however, is not content to adopt the anti-manager point of view, and neither am I. The managers who have been loyal supporters of CIDM are the opposite of the
do-nothing managers identified by the school of scientific management or Karl Marx. As Witzel states, “It is much easier to measure the usefulness of a front-line worker than a manager. But the latter creates the conditions in which productive labour can flourish.”

That statement neatly sums up exactly the impression I have of the most productive and effective managers in our field. Peter Drucker, who died this week, wrote that “the manager is the dynamic, life-giving element in every business. Without his (sic) leadership, the `resource of production’ remain resources and never become productive.” In 1939, Roethlisberger and Dickson argue that the work of the manager consists of three things: “structure or organizations, communications, and people.” In their study, Management and the Worker, they pointed out that because business is constantly changing, someone has to manage the change so that both the workers and the company benefit. Managers help workers to share a common purpose and understand the role they play in achieving that purpose.

Today I happen to be teaching a project management workshop. One of the purposes of the workshop is to show how individual contributors have a role to play in managing their projects productively and producing quality for the customer. As managers recognize, writers can bury themselves in their cubicles and forget that their work serves a purpose in the organization. Managers help writers learn what that purpose is and how to best fulfill it. When intelligent, active managers are replaced by programmers or place holders from other fields, they provide no direction, leaving writers to fend for themselves.
Usually the result-everyone is going in different directions. They lack the direction and motivation fostered by intelligent managers, who, by motivating people, simply get more out of their staffs.

What then are managers good for? Here is the advice offered by Witzel in the Financial Times:

  • Good managers enable their staff to adapt to changes in the business environment.
  • Good managers facilitate the flow of information from the larger organization to their own groups and ensure that information moves back from the group to the larger organization.
  • Good managers nurture their people, ensuring that they are motivated and happy, causing their performance to continually improve.
  • Good managers earn their weight in gold, making their company as a whole more effective, efficient, and profitable. They understand the importance of saving costs and enhancing productivity while not abandoning quality that provides value to the customer.

At their best, our CIDM managers pursue three critical responsibilities. They foster communications, they ensure people are motivated to work effectively, and they provide the structure in their organizations that makes the work efficient and productive.

The managers we know urge staff members to be aware of their audiences and pursue a minimalist agenda in meeting user needs for information. They seek out opportunities to become more efficient, through content management, reuse of content, seamless workflow, and all the other methods that are supported by today’s tools and technologies. These managers are doing a great job and are actively contributing to their organizations. Only the ignorant fail to appreciate them. CIDMIconNewsletter