The other day, I, and some others with me, was interviewing candidates for a mobile app developer position when a particularly promising candidate asked me, "How many people will I have reporting to me?"
Suddenly, I could see the ghost of Alfred P Sloan peering at us through my office window. Sloan, who for 20 years starting from the mid-1930s ran General Motors and took it to being the largest private sector business in the world, is the man who gave the phrase "manager" its prestige and the notion that the more direct reports you have, the more important your role in the business.
Sloan wrote what was once believed to be the handbook of professional management, My Years with General Motors. For Sloan, the "professional" manager was a person who was supremely rational, would operate only with "facts", not intuition or gut feel, and would spend all his time supervising the creation and review of annual operating budgets and the like. He would have entered the organisation at the bottom and over the years would have moved up to the top, which, according to Sloan, "develops loyalty, ambition and talent". His glacial move up the ladder would be signalled by the increasing number of people reporting to him.
I haven't heard Sloan acknowledge his debt to Max Weber, but I am sure he must have secretly read him. Weber, a German social scientist, was an early admirer of bureaucracy and believed that it was the most efficient form of organisation simply because bureaucracies are organised according to rational principles. Roles are assigned slots in a hierarchical fashion, areas of jurisdiction are carefully laid out, and recruitment is based on carefully pre-defined qualifications. Delegation of authority was the creed, and centralised decision-making was seen as a remnant of feudal times. Bureaucratic types of organisation were seen as technically superior to all other forms of administration just as machine-based manufacturing was seen as superior to handicraft methods. All of us who attended business schools were taught to believe this.
The inner world of organisations then was, in this scheme, divided into people who "do" things, writing accounts ledgers (or operating computers that did that), making sales calls, or driving trucks; and "managers", who did none of the above but merely "managed" all the doers who did these things. Managers wrote reports (or corrected reports written by others for them), attended meetings and made presentations. In the media industries, "managers" were not supposed to come up with creative ideas or write scripts or articles or shoot films; their job was to supervise others who did such things and make sure that all these creators abided by company "policy".
The only catch to this scheme of Sloan and Weber (not to mention Peter Drucker and the other worthies whose books are the staple of airport bookshops) is such routine-isable supervisory functions are the very ones that an algorithm can do better than a human being. Just as in the industrial era, inventors who spotted a repetitive action in manufacturing would immediately design a machine that could do the repetitive action, in the current age, any information-processing task or sequence of tasks are the target of algorithm designers.
When you present a cheque for cash at a bank you no longer need a human being to check in a ledger whether you have a balance in your account before authorising the cashier to pay you the cash - you present your card at an ATM machine that checks your balance electronically and spews out cash. The bank managers and their flocks - and even the bank branch itself - have started disappearing.
It is in the industries that live and breathe on the design, writing and implementation of computer software that the "manager" is disappearing the fastest. Till recently, it was believed that for every half-dozen people who write computer code you need a "manager" to supervise them. This manager was supposed to listen to external parties, understand their requirements, translate these requirements to the actual code-writers and explain the result back to these external parties. Except that a year or two of not writing code yourself can make this "manager" unable to join the conversation.
There is some evidence that firms in the financial service industry - who till now have been the single largest employer of fresh MBAs, accounting for a third or more of placement at many elite business schools - are starting to re-look at their practice of making a general-purpose MBA as a pre-requisite for entry. In their book, Rethinking the MBA: Business Education at a Crossroads, Srikant Datar and his co-authors quote a senior manager at a top bank as saying that in their hiring they are "aggressively pursuing PhDs in business, finance, mathematics, physics, and operations. The common thread is that all are people who are highly analytical and can translate complex situations into mathematical models. The percentage of MBAs that we hire will go down in the next ten years". If there ever was a signal that the general-purpose liberal education that management schools provided so far has to give way to a strong injection of computer science and data science skills, this is it.
In leading companies in Information Age industries, the word "manager" is taking on a pejorative meaning - something like "zamindar" - a man who lived off other people's work and did no work himself.
However, these notions of "managers" and what constitutes "management work"is not going to go away that quickly; just the other day a very bright young entry-level woman who works in our company came beaming to tell me she was getting married. What does your future husband do, I asked her. He is doing very level in his company, she said, he is a manager, he has six people reporting to him.
Ajit Balakrishnan is the author of The Wave Rider,
A Chronicle of the Information Age