View from City Road: Cutting out the middle manager

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WH Smith and United Biscuits have sent yet another frisson down the spine of the country's existing or aspiring white collar managers. A culling of half Smith's 1,800-strong store managers and 500 from UB, announced yesterday, is a further significant step in the break-down of traditional company career paths. Theory has long suggested that many middle managers are redundant. Now it is happening.

In industry after industry the need for multiple layers of management has come into question as companies have abandoned past 'safe' hierarchical structures to get nearer to customers, a process accelerated by the spread of information technology.

WH Smith has reaped huge benefits from the introduction of electronic point-of-sale technology to make best use of its shelf space. No need now for Mr Blenkinsop, the store manager, to decide what to order - it is largely done by computer.

Information technology is one thing, but where WH Smith has slipped up is in neglecting the service side of its business. It has not single-handedly re-invented the interminable queue, but lack of floor staff must mean lost sales.

In place of 950 store managers WH Smith will have 600 customer support leaders. More Boy Scouts/Girl Guides, perhaps, than executives, and cheaper too, but essential if hard-pressed Nineties customers are to be kept happy.