Peter Klein and Nicolai Foss on Managers in Flat Business Structures
The online magazine Aeon currently features an outstanding article from our scholars Peter Klein and Nicolai Foss on the trend toward "bossless" business structures. Far from being redundant middlemen, they argue, good managers are needed more than ever even in firms that aspire to flat, decentralized, and democratic organization.
Klein and Foss challenge the idea that managers will become obsolete, replaced by self-directed and super connected knowledge workers:
This movement is gaining steam for a couple of reasons. First, the bossless-company model arguably captures some tendencies, however inaccurately. Second, it is very much part of the 21st-century Zeitgeist in its emphasis on personal development, resilience and fulfilment through empowering employees, and decentralised and democratic decision processes. There is also a strong moralistic and political undertone to the narrative; in Private Government (2017), the philosopher Elizabeth Anderson argues that firms are effectively totalitarian states, enjoying rights and privileges that would be unconstitutional for ordinary states to impose on their citizens. The historian Caitlin Rosenthal has argued that the factory system, hierarchy and managerial authority are partly derived from the slave system. What can be more morally defensible than getting rid of the remnants of slavery?
Unfortunately, the bossless-company narrative is dead wrong. It misunderstands the nature of management, which isn’t going away, and it is based on questionable evidence. Given these fundamental defects, this narrative is potentially harmful to managers, students and policymakers.
Are the benefits of technology in assembling and organizing modern firms oversold?
While technological miracles such as the internet, cheap and reliable wireless communication, Moore’s law, miniaturisation and information markets have induced sweeping changes in manufacturing, retail, transportation and communication, the laws of economics are still the laws of economics. And human nature hasn’t changed. The basic problem of management and business – how to assemble, organise and motivate groups of people and resources to produce goods and services that consumers want – is still the same. Since the industrial revolution, entrepreneurs have been organising extremely complex activities in firms that are neither completely centralised nor completely flat. Imagine the complexity involved in operating a national railroad, a steel mill or an automobile assembly plant in the 19th and early 20th centuries. These were all ‘knowledge-based activities’ and were conducted in teams organised in various structures. Are things so different today?
In short, today’s business landscape features exciting developments in information technology, networking and collaboration that have led to new forms of organisation, production and distribution. Far from making management obsolete, however, these changes make good management more important than ever. The shift from management as direction to management as making and enforcing the rules is slowly entering the management literature and the business-school curriculum. That’s a paradigm shift worth embracing.
This is a must-read article for anyone interested in the very hot topic of business management in the 21st century.