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What is Management Today?

What is the meaning of management today? Everyone manages something, even if it just themselves, their personal finances or their time.

The essence of management is to achieve a goal as efficiently as possible. You could manage your holiday by carefully planning how to spend every day or you could just go and do whatever appeals to you moment by moment. By managing your holiday, you make better use of your time and get more out of your holiday.

For this reason, management is very much like investment. Managers have resources to invest – their own time and talent as well as human and financial resources. The goal or function of management is to get the best return on those resources by getting things done efficiently. This doesn’t entail being mechanical. The manager’s style is a situational issue. With highly skilled and self-motivated knowledge workers, the manager must be very empowering. Where the workforce is less skilled or motivated, the manager may need to monitor output more closely.

By saying that management is a function, not a type of person or role, we better account for self-managed work teams where no single person is in charge. In a self-managed team, the function of management could be shared across all team members. In other words, management doesn’t imply that someone is the manager. Skilled managers know how to coach and motivate diverse employees. Getting things done through people is what they do.

The Evolving Meaning of Management

In the early twentieth century and further back during the industrial revolution, managers were overseers, much like prison guards. Employees, to these early managers, could not be trusted. They needed to be watched, controlled and disciplined, literally whipped into shape. The early management scholar, Frederick W. Taylor, who died in 1915, did most of his thinking about management during the heyday of the assembly line. As a result, he portrayed management in very machine-like terms. His managers were efficiency experts, almost robotic.

When the Japanese commercial invasion hit the U.S. in the 1970’s, management thinkers attacked Taylor’s concept of management viciously.  They were looking for a scapegoat for the failure of U.S. industry to compete with the Japanese, and management was fingered for this role. Jack Welch, Tom Peters and other gurus called for leadership to replace management, which they saw as stifling innovation. The reality was that a lack of competition created a complacent attitude in Western business AND lackluster management. It was the way management was practiced that was the problem, not anything to do with management as a function. We simply needed to upgrade management for a new reality.

Effective Managers

Skilled managers are catalysts, facilitators, brokers, developers of people and coaches as well as investors. They know that much of today’s knowledge work means thinking smart. To get this type of work done through people, managers need to be question-askers, not answer-givers. This means knowing how to draw the best solutions out of others. The best managers use great questions to facilitate decision making in others. They realize that they don’t have all the answers and, in any case, to foster ownership in others, they need to ask questions to draw solutions out of others.

Management is a vital function thanks to the complexity of modern organizational life. The need to coordinate the input of so many diverse stakeholders, experts and customers requires enormous patience and highly developed facilitative skills. Excellent managers know how to bring the right people together and, by asking the right questions, draw the best solutions out of them. Effective managers need sufficient self-discipline to coordinate diverse resources in an organized manner. To facilitate well requires managers to work very closely with all relevant stakeholders.

The Purpose of Management

It is imperative to realize that management does not imply any particular style or personality. To define management, we simply need to see it as an organizational function. For example, we differentiate Sales from Marketing just by pointing to their respective purposes, what they are there to do in organizations. The function of Marketing is to promote a brand to a particular market while the function of Sales is to get business in the door. Similarly, the function of leadership is to promote new directions while the function of management is to execute existing directions as efficiently as possible.

Managers don’t just keep ongoing operations ticking over. They also manage complex projects like making a modern movie or putting the first man on the moon. Leadership is only required to sell the tickets for the journey or to resell it periodically if resistance develops, but management drives the bus to the destination.

Leadership versus Management

Management gets things done by bringing the right resources to bear on current issues. They are in the middle, acting as catalysts. By contrast, the leader can be a bit of an outsider. Like Martin Luther King promoting desegregation on buses to the U.S. government from the sidelines. The leader can induce people to change even with no direct involvement or authority over the people who are needed to take the hoped for action. The essence of leadership is to promote new directions, to show the way, to create the future. So defined, leadership has nothing to do with managing people.

See alsoTwenty First Century Management, Mintzberg on Management and Leadership and Management Reinvented.

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