Blog: Managing in the Digital Age

The devil is in a detail

4 October 2016

Mies van der Rohe, the famous Bauhaus architect, claimed that “God is in the details.” But another expression, that “The devil is in the details”, is more common, perhaps because the devil has been hard at work in the corporate world these days.

I relish businesses that get the details right. The first thing you notice about a great restaurant is how good the bread is. When you walk into a well-functioning office, you are struck by the attentiveness of the people. As a customer, you pay what they ask, because of another detail: you trust them. Even when this is substantial, you walk out feeling satisfied—it was worth it.  When the devil is lurking about, however, you notice the details even more: the surliness of a staff member, or being ripped off by some unexpected charge.

Mies van der Rohe, the famous Bauhaus architect, claimed that “God is in the details.” But another expression, that “The devil is in the details”, is more common, perhaps because the devil has been hard at work in the corporate world these days.

I relish businesses that get the details right. The first thing you notice about a great restaurant is how good the bread is. When you walk into a well-functioning office, you are struck by the attentiveness of the people. As a customer, you pay what they ask, because of another detail: you trust them. Even when this is substantial, you walk out feeling satisfied—it was worth it.  When the devil is lurking about, however, you notice the details even more: the surliness of a staff member, or being ripped off by some unexpected charge.

Recently we took our health care program (imhl.org) back to a hotel because last time it was so good on the details. Not this time. We brought two of our own microphones, but were forced to rent theirs: four days for $1200. (We bought our two for $400.) A server grabbed away my juice glass at breakfast, and didn’t respond when I asked for it back until I raised my voice a third time. She turned around and shot back: “You could go and get a new one.” The bathroom near our meeting room was dirty, and ran out of paper. Liz, who administers the program, said: “I did not feel like we were important to them.” What happened to this place?

Shall we look for the devil in the executive offices? A new manager, perhaps? Nope, the same one as last time. New owners? Yes, from abroad, who apparently moved into the place. Were they managing the manager? Who knows? Or maybe this was just an off week. After all, the first thing I noticed at dinner was how good the bread was. (The second thing I noticed was that the food had become less good.)

The devil in many enterprises these days may also be lurking in a book that is 100 years old. Henri Fayol, a French mining magnate, published General and Industrial Administration in 1916. It described the basic elements of managing as Planning, Organizing, Commanding, Coordinating, and Controlling. Think about them: five words for controlling!

This view dominated the managerial mindset for decades. Then along came a number of management writers, myself included, who challenged it. In my 1973 book The Nature of Managerial Work, I pointed out that managers spend at least half their time interacting with people outside their units: negotiating with suppliers, lobbying with governments, meeting customers, and so on. Where is the controlling in this? And many of us have been working hard for years to get managing past the mindset of all that controlling: toward cooperating and collaborating, in a word, communityship, beyond leadership.

Now, however, especially in many widely-held enterprises, controlling seems to have come back with a vengeance. “Owners” who are changing all the time, and many of the stock analysts who do their bidding, couldn’t care less about engaging employees, about pride and respect in work, about serving customers, about quality in products and services.  All they care about is MORE: squeezing out more revenues, more savings, more profits. Manage the enterprise the way you make orange juice.

But what happens when there is no more to be squeezed out of a place that has been run really well? The answer is easy: provide less to make more. Rip the customers off with add-on fees. Pressure the staff to cut corners. Or “downsize” them altogether so that there is no-one to replenish the toilet paper. And don’t forget to pay the CEO outrageous bonuses to drive all this.

Yes, Planning, Organizing, Commanding, Coordinating, and Controlling is back all right, except that now it has become remote controlling: detached from the operations yet determined to control them. This has become much of management in the digital age.

Did I suggest above that controlling is focussed within the organization? Not this time around. Now the customers are controlled ($1200 for microphones), the suppliers are controlled (don’t let them get carried away with quality), even markets are controlled (buy your competitors when you can’t collude with them). All except the stock market and those analysts. The devil is now in one little detail: the immediate price of the stock. Where are you God?

© Henry Mintzberg 2016. For more on some of this, see my book Simply Managing.

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Networks are not Communities

8 October 2015

If you want to understand the difference between a network and a community, ask your Facebook friends to help paint your house. Networks connect; communities care.

Social media certainly connect us to whoever is on the other end of the line, and so extend our social networks in amazing ways. But this can come at the expense of our personal relationships.1 Many people are so busy texting and tweeting that they barely have time for meeting and reading.2 Where do they get the meaning? The answer may lie in lost community—in our organizations as well as our localities.

If you want to understand the difference between a network and a community, ask your Facebook friends to help paint your house. Networks connect; communities care.

Social media certainly connect us to whoever is on the other end of the line, and so extend our social networks in amazing ways. But this can come at the expense of our personal relationships.1 Many people are so busy texting and tweeting that they barely have time for meeting and reading.2 Where do they get the meaning? The answer may lie in lost community—in our organizations as well as our localities.

Marshall McLuhan wrote famously about the “global village”, created by new information technologies. But what kind of a village is this? In the traditional village, you chatted with your neighbor at the local market, face-to-face: this was the heart of community. When that neighbor’s barn burned down, you may well have pitched in to help rebuild it. In the global village of today, the most prominent market is the soulless stock market. And when you click on that  keyboard, the message could be going to some “friend” or associate you never even met. Like those fantasy-ridden love affairs on the Internet, this kind of communicating remains untouched, and untouchable.

A century or two ago, the word community “seemed to connote a specific group of people, from a particular patch of earth, who knew and judged and kept an eye on one another, who shared habits and history and memories, and could at times be persuaded to act as a whole on behalf of a part.” In contrast, the word has now become fashionable to describe what are really networks, as in the “business community”—“people with common interests [but] not common values, history, or memory.”3

Does this matter for dealing with the global problems of this world? You bet it does. In his New York Times column in 2012, Thomas Friedman reported asking an Egyptian friend about the protest movements in that country: “Facebook really helped people to communicate, but not to collaborate,” he replied. Friedman added that “at their worst, [social media] can become addictive substitutes for real action.”4 That is why, while the larger social movements (in Cairo’s Tahrir Square or on Wall Street) may raise consciousness about the need for renewal in society, it is the smaller social initiatives, usually developed by small groups in communities, that do much of the renewing.

As for managing in this digital age, as I have written many times, effective organizations function as communities of human beings, not collections of human resources. Of course, all organizations need robust networks, to connect their parts and link to the outside world. For their managers especially, networking and communicating are major aspects of the job. But far more crucial is collaboration, and that requires a strong sense of community in the organization.

We make a great fuss about leadership these days, but communityship is more important. Successful leaders create, enhance, and support a sense of community in their organization, and that requires hands-on management. Beyond an excessive focus on the individual is recognition of the collective nature of effective enterprise.

The new digital technologies, wonderful as they are in enhancing communication, can have a negative effect on collaboration. They put us “in touch” with a keyboard, that’s all. As I wrote in a related piece, managers who rely on that keyboard can lose control of their job, while they drive their practice of managing over the edge.

Electronic communication has become essential for managing around the globe. But the heart of enterprise remains rooted in personal, collaborative relationships, albeit networked by these new technologies. Thus, in localities and organizations, across societies and around the globe, beware of “networked individualism”5, where people communicate handily while they struggle to collaborate.

© Henry Mintzberg 2015  For more on this theme, and on community, see my book Rebalancing Society. For more on managing in general, and in this digital age, see my book Simply Managing. A version of this TWOG appeared earlier this week on druckerforum.org and hbr.org.

1 “…the current body of internet research indicates that the internet has not caused a widespread flourishing of new relationships”; people mostly communicate with others they already know, and when they do meet people on line, the relationships that continue “tend to migrate offline” (D.D. Barney [2006], “The Vanishing Table”, in  Community in the Digital Age, Rowman and Litttlefield, p.9, citing Boase ad Wellman) 

See Marche’s article in The Atlantic “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” (May 2012). He claimed that, thanks largely to ourselves, “we suffer from unprecedented alienation…. In a world consumed by ever more novel modes of socializing, we have less and less actual society.”

Giridharadas, A. (2013, September 22). Draining the Life From “Community”. New York Times.

4 Friedman, T. (2012, June 9). Facebook Meets Brick-and-Mortar Politics. New York Times.

5 J. Boase and B. Wellman (2006) “Personal Relationships: On and Off the Internet”, in The Cambridge Handbook of Personal Relationships, A. L. Vangelisti and D.Perlman (eds.), Cambridge University Press