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The role of middle managers in innovation

09.17.2013
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Managers have come in for a hard time recently, not least from Ratan Tata who launched an attack on the work ethic of managers at Jaguar Land Rover recently.  It justifiably caused a stir amongst the management community who sought to defend managers as a profession.

So research by Wharton management professor Ethan Mollick in support of middle managers is both timely and interesting.  The paper, titled “People and Process: Suits and Innovators: Individuals and Firm Performance”, suggests that middle managers may have more influence on your organisations performance than any other group.

Mollick suggests that middle managers are especially important in industry that require innovative employees such as biotech, computing and media.

“It is in these knowledge-intensive industries where variation in the abilities of middle managers – the “suits” he refers to in his paper — has a “particularly large impact on firm performance, much larger than that of individuals who are assigned innovative roles,” Mollick says.

The value provided by middle managers in such an environment is in project management, allocation of resources and generally coordinating the talented individuals required in such industries.

This follows similar research in 2008, also from Wharton, that underlines the importance of middle managers.  Middle managers are essential in organisations, in part because they link senior management and the rest of the company. They are “the glue across upper and lower levels as well as horizontally with other departments.”

What cannot be disputed however is the changing role of the middle manager.  In previous hierarchical times, the middle manager would act as the conduit through which business strategy would flow.  They would be the mouthpiece that would take strategy handed to them by executives and ensure it was implemented properly.

In modern times however strategy is increasingly emerging from the bottom up, with employees playing a growing role in the formulation of the strategy.  In such a scenario, the middle manager plays the role of community manager, linking up ideas and generating input into the strategic process.  They are the connectors and cajolers rather than the directors and dictators.

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