If you’re in IT management, it’s important to learn lessons from every sector, particularly if you obtained an information systems management degree and not one in business management. Not all practices will work, but many might.
One that could interest many IT departments is a new civil service analysis suggesting that middle managers may be the key to success. According to the report from the Partnership for Public Service and Booz Allen Hamilton, middle managers have an oversized impact on how an organization operates.
Research over more than two decades confirms that when employees are empowered—one book uses the word “unleashed”—to capitalize on their abilities, they are capable of performing at significantly higher levels. That is especially true for knowledge workers. Managers hold the keys to creating a work environment where those workers can thrive.
The focus on knowledge workers is important in the public sector because so many government employees fall into that category. But then, so do many in IT. Even if someone is pulling cable or physically configuring servers, their work is largely intellectual.
Even though the management of a public sector organization can differ in some significant ways from a private sector company, information like this is potentially too useful to ignore. The reason middle managers have become so important to knowledge work is a seismic shift in the structure of organizations.
Historically, organizations had a strong degree of control from upper management—a remnant of factory operations—which would set direction and performance expectations. Employees were cogs that had to perform as directed. Middle managers were the caretakers of the vast human machine. Old theories of management would have one manager or supervisor to five or six employees to enable the greatest degree of control possible.
But in knowledge work, employees have more responsibility and self-direction because of the nature of their work. Work isn’t a series of repetitive cookie-cutter motions and obligations. The job of the middle managers has changed. Instead of enforcing schedules and quotas, they must enable the work of the employees and create the atmospheres in which workers can excel.
That likely requires a serious reexamination of how an organization — or IT department — operates and the characteristics that better managers share. Google undertook a large internal study to see what made a good boss in the eyes of employees. The company’s Project Oxygen found that the following eight characteristics were most important for Google:
- Be a good coach, with regular one-on-one meetings.
- Empower a team and don’t micromanage.
- Show interest in the success and well-being of each employee.
- Be productive and results-oriented.
- Communicate well and listen to employees.
- Help employees with career development.
- Have a clear vision and strategy for the team.
- Have technical skills so you can advise the team.
These could be a starting point for many IT departments. Some might need a modified list. The real question is whether a department will understand how to best manage the employees for the greater performance and satisfaction of all.