Do not read too much into a possible relationship between the development of information technology and the incidence of “upside-down” management. That’s the overwhelming message from responses to the column raising questions about the possible connection between the two.
First, as Greg Waldrip points out, let’s get things in perspective. These are only means to carry out a strategy after goals are determined, all in a supportive management environment. Dennis Crane concurs, adding that “Information technology should only turn businesses upside down when they’ve already determined that there’s some truly fundamental reason to do so.”
Some question whether the “upside down” organization is an idea whose time has come. David Koltermann warns, “The potential revolution to turn management upside down is overstated… In the marketplace of ideas, inhabited by academics and consultants …personal advancement may be better served by being provocative than by being right.”
Periodically, somebody comes up with the idea of turning the organization upside down, with the customer on top. Those serving customers in the frontline come next, and top management winds up at the bottom. It’s eye-catching and too often grossly out of step with what really happens when organizations employ the concept.
Now we learn that the Army is experimenting with satellite-driven information technology that enables a tank commander to have a full view of the battlefield, including the positions of both friendly and enemy tanks. Armed with this knowledge, the best tank operators can make better, more timely decisions than their superiors—but only under certain conditions. First, frontline tank commanders have to have the intelligence and judgement to sort through a heavy load of information that is changing in real time (not unlike the best video game players). Second, the technology has to operate dependably, a problem in combat. And third and most significant, superiors have to be willing to delegate such decisions to frontliners. As a result, there have been as many spectacular failures as successes in military tests of the technology. In fact, the implementation of information technology generally has been quite disappointing to the “fighting bottom line” in the modern Army to date.
But let’s suppose that all three of these barriers eventually are overcome. What will it mean for the traditional hierarchical military chain of command? Or for business?
For years, W. Edwards Deming, the father of modern continuous quality improvement, had trouble convincing U.S. (as opposed to Japanese) auto manufacturers to implement the keys to improved quality. They include, among other things, improved information, training to improve quality, and delegating authority to frontline production workers to shut down a billion-dollar production line in the interests of quality improvement. More recently, Gary Hamel, in his book Leading the Revolution, has talked of putting such information to use in encouraging people at all levels of an organization to come up with new business ideas and advance them within the company.
If there is a common theme here, it is that information technologies, combined with proper selection, training, and the willingness of managers to rethink their jobs, have the potential for literally turning organizations upside down, changing forever what we have thought of as the role of management, if not leadership. But will it happen, given what the Army has found?
What about the unwillingness of frontliners to employ their information in the service of the organization as a whole, even if their individual performance may be penalized? What about the potential for substituting technology for judgement on the frontline? What about the fact that frontline employees are paid according to their rank rather than their potential impact on performance? And what about management’s ability to change? Is information technology fueling a false hope or are we really entering a new era of upside-down management? What do you think?