Retooling the Manager’s Role

Managers in every industry, sector and function know how distractions can pull them away from core responsibilities, including driving growth. The fact is that it is hard to manage in today’s fast-paced environment, with new challenges coming at managers every day, each seemingly more pressing than the one before.

In the digital era, technology adds to the complexities managers must manage. Whether it’s working their way through a mountain of emails, dealing with the expectation of being constantly connected and available or striving to keep up with the latest technologies and trends, many managers have asked themselves how they can best embrace digital to generate the business results their organizations need.

Smart managers know that, if leveraged skillfully, technology can help improve the quality of their work. It can also foster collaboration and infuse efficiency into processes.

As such, technology can enable managers to deliver immense value for their organizations. Digital frees managers up to focus more sharply on the activities critical to driving fresh growth.

Perhaps the most crucial of these activities centers on identifying opportunities emerging in the business environment and crafting strategies for capitalizing on those opportunities with speed and agility.

Digital’s real value lies in its power to reshape managers’ roles. To capture this value, managers can’t adopt a passive attitude — they must play an active part in reconceiving their roles.

This is a conclusion drawn from recent Accenture Strategy research, which shows that the move to digital for organizations across industry sectors is a top priority for business leaders (Editor’s note: The authors work at the management consulting firm).

The same research reveals that, despite widespread awareness of the importance of being digital, few enterprises are taking specific steps to prepare for this move.

With this disconnect in mind, let’s take a closer look at three ways in which managers can redefine their roles in the age of digital.

Capitalizing on Perceptions

Managers have a huge opportunity to capitalize on employees’ positive perceptions of digital tools and technologies. Conventional wisdom suggests employees sometimes can act as a barrier to digital progress. Yet, in a 2014 Accenture Strategy study, research shows that the opposite is true.

In a survey comparing business leaders’ and employees’ attitudes toward digital tools and technologies, employees indicated a belief that digital will bring important improvements to their work lives and a desire to proactively prepare by building skills to meet the demands of a digital business.

While the survey focused on Europe, the insights gained are valuable and relevant for any geography. Here’s a closer look at key findings that can help managers capitalize on employees’ positive perceptions of digital:

  • Employees believe that digital brings improvements. The employees in the survey are upbeat about the advancements to be gained from digital technologies, with 71 percent of respondents identifying team benefits of innovation, agility (69 percent) and productivity (68 percent). But more than 50 percent believed their organization is ready for digital technologies in terms of workforce skills and capabilities as well as work practices and processes. They are also more bullish than their employers on how digital will improve their job prospects and their work experience.
  • Employees are actively building digital skills. As many as 81 percent of the employees acknowledged that digital will transform the way they work in the next three years. But more than 50 percent feared that their leaders aren’t ready. So rather than waiting for transformation, they’re honing their own skills and capabilities to prepare — 62 percent said they’re assessing the new skills that the future will require while 64 percent said they are learning about new digital tools and building their technical skills.

—Celine Laurenceau and Deborah Brecher


Lead Horizontally

In a 2014 study, “From Looking Digital to Being Digital: The Impact of Technology on the Future of Work,” Accenture Strategy introduced the notion that digital technology has a fluid nature.

Like a liquid, digital flows throughout every nook and cranny of an organization. Like drops of water that over time turn stones into pebbles, it wears down the silos and hierarchies in an organization. Like a river, it connects people across geographies and functions, making work processes transparent and enabling people and ideas to intersect in ways that foster innovation.

Thanks to its fluid nature, digital encourages and even requires “horizontal” leadership, whereby managers exert influence without relying on the formal authority characterizing more traditional “vertical” leadership.

Horizontal leadership encourages managers to rely heavily on collaboration and decentralized decision-making — two vital elements of a digital enterprise.

True horizontal leaders are able to let go of an over-reliance on formal authority, trusting that teams have the capability of doing effective work. And they believe that people at any level and function in the organization can make smart decisions if they have the right information and tools.

That same Accenture study also showed that there’s value in revising management models in such ways to encourage collaboration and to ensure that decision-making is not done in a vacuum. Collaboration software and other digital technologies have the power to help leaders boost their own as well as others’ productivity.

But the research also revealed that, for all too many organizations, there’s still considerable work to be done at the leadership level. In fact, many of the business leaders surveyed cited a “lack of vision and leadership” as a main roadblock to their organization’s efforts to become digital.

Even more sobering, just 30 percent of them said they felt well prepared to modify their leadership and management practices to adapt to the digital ecosystem.

This is worrisome, given that the digital journey requires major alterations in processes, people practices and technology routines for any organization.

Drawing on data we collected from more than 750,000 organizational change management transformations, we identified strong change leadership as a critical success factor in driving organizational transformation, including the move
to digital.

Additionally, our analysis suggests that the best change leaders use digital tools and technologies to foster the collaboration and informal communication that are essential for successful execution of change programs and that constitute defining characteristics of horizontal leadership.

For example, instead of sending company emails, managers can use blogs as a tool for highlighting technology trends and news about the organization’s move toward digital for employees in an informal way.

Blogs can also help managers share their insights with direct reports as well as peers about what the company’s objectives are with regard to technology and how it plans to achieve those objectives.

Likewise, managers can use online learning platforms to equip their teams with the knowledge and skills they’ll need to make changes to their work routines that moving toward digital will require.

Such platforms offer a major boon in that learners can take advantage of these educational opportunities without the hassle of having to travel to a classroom.

Tap Into the Crowd

In addition to leading horizontally, fostering innovation is among the most valuable efforts managers bring to their role. And there’s a strongly perceived connection between digital tools and innovation.

In a 2015 Accenture Strategy study “Being Digital:  Embrace the Future of Work and Your Workforce Will Embrace it with You,” 31 percent of respondents cited major improvements in innovation as a benefit that they expected advancements in digital technologies to deliver for their team or work group.

By getting their own and others’ creative juices flowing, managers catalyze the fresh ideas the company needs to create and improve products and services and make work processes more efficient.

Wanted: Digital Vision, Leadership

Companies around the world are experiencing different degrees of difficulty when it comes to digital vision and leadership. In a 2015 Accenture Strategy executive survey, as much as 35 percent of respondents based in U.S. companies cited the lack of such vision and leadership as a main challenge that they’re facing, or that they believe they will face, as they work to transform their organization into a digital business.

In the survey, this 35 percent was second only to the number for Japan (38 percent). For survey participants hailing from organizations based in other countries — namely China, Italy and Belgium — the percentages were much lower: 28 percent, 26 percent and 24 percent, respectively.

In some countries, organizations will need to make significant changes to successfully navigate the transition to digital, while in other countries companies may face less of a struggle.

—Celine Laurenceau and Deborah Brecher

The 2015 research suggests creative thinking can also help managers and their teams solve stubborn business problems and develop novel business models that improve the company’s financial performance.

To unleash such creativity, managers should understand that great ideas can comes from anywhere, and that it’s up to them to help set up an environment where such ideas can surface easily.

Digital tools and technologies can help by enabling managers to deploy crowdsourcing, using the general public or employees to gather ideas about product conception, design or promotion.

Through this method, managers can quickly elicit ideas from huge numbers of individuals and transform those ideas into valuable innovations.

By doing so, they increase the chances that their organization will get new products or services to market faster than rival businesses can, and thus gain a sharp competitive edge.  

Build an Agile Enterprise

Savvy use of digital tools can also help managers improve their organization’s agility — the ability to respond quickly to changes in the business environment. In fact, agility has recently emerged as a distinguishing characteristic of high-performance businesses.

In another 2015 study, “Leadership Imperatives for an Agile Business,” Accenture Strategy shows that in agile organizations, managers and employees are well positioned to anticipate changes and then seize the opportunities or vanquish the  any threats. 

Agility also contributes to an organization’s ability to make critical decisions quickly. In fact, in the same Accenture Strategy study, three-quarters of the organizations involved had made changes to accelerate decision-making. The same study showed that leading organizations make quick decisions and bring in leadership from other industries to offer a broader cross-section of skills and experience to improve decision-making.

Moreover, in the previous 2014 Accenture Strategy study on digital, more than two-thirds of the employees said they believe that advancements in digital technologies will result in greater agility and ability on their organization’s part to more rapidly respond to change. By equipping their teams with digital tools, managers can support the speedy and decentralized decision-making essential for organizational agility.

Consider a customer service agent who has access to an intelligent agent, which enables her to pull up a customer’s account history and to recommend tailored new services based on the individual’s past usage of the company’s offerings. Or consider a field force technician who can view telecommunications network schematics through a hand-held mobile device, which helps him minimize errors and eliminates the need for him to make a follow-up visit to a customer site.

Managers who support use of such tools help empower everyone in the organization to make informed decisions faster, which can translate into enhanced revenue and reduced costs for the company. 

 While reshaping their roles in ways that exploit digital’s power will take time and effort, it’s important for managers to embrace this new mandate. Technology can help them modify their roles in ways that drive new growth for their organization — but only if they use it properly.