Is Management Obsolete?

Traditional management practices don’t fit today’s workplaces.

By Donna M. Owens May 1, 2012
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May  CoverHaving witnessed the end of apartheid in his native South Africa, Mark Addleson knows what it's like to see a society undergo transformational change. Perhaps that's why the business professor says it's possible—and necessary—to revolutionize U.S. management practices.

Addleson, an associate professor of public policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and the author of Beyond Management: Taking Charge at Work (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), contends that management must be re-created to empower 21st century knowledge workers—and ultimately their organizations.

What is management?

First, it is the people who manage others. Management also refers to certain processes, such as planning, budgeting, coordination and control. Finally, management is a mindset that pervades an organization and shapes the way people work.

Why doesn't traditional management fit today's workplaces?

The work of management hasn't changed fundamentally. What has changed is the work that is managed. Management practices were developed during the industrial era, when most work was done in factories. It was highly mechanized and repetitive. This is a time of profound change. We're emerging from centuries-old patterns of thought that encourage and reward specific ways of working.

"Knowledge workers" figure prominently in your book. Who is a knowledge worker?

Just about everybody who isn't a factory worker is a knowledge worker, ranging from the CEO to the janitor. It's not so much who they are but what they do. There have always been knowledge workers. Their work is not mechanical, and it varies. Knowledge workers talk, text and network. They have to be creative, as they make decisions individually and collectively.

What are some of the most counterproductive common management practices?

Knowledge work requires collaboration. But management often focuses on individuals to the exclusion of groups. Many organizations rely on high-control systems. We talk about accountability, but what we really mean is compliance. This and the hierarchy of management—somebody in charge who makes decisions for everyone else—get in the way of people sharing knowledge.

HR practitioners should be on the lookout for every potential roadblock to collaboration and try to remove it.

In a collaborative environment, how are workers held accountable for their work or disciplined?

Those are the million-dollar questions. They're the heart of everything. Using the traditional model, unless there's control—in other words, compliance—the view is that workers will be unproductive.

But when people agree to be accountable to one another as peers, they recognize what they're doing is a joint effort. They each commit to specific actions or goals and to holding each other to their commitments. What's important is a commitment to do good work together.

The interviewer is a freelance writer based in Baltimore.

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