Defending the middle ground

In the cult of delayering, middle managers were the chosen sacrifice. Now research suggests that it may all have been a mistake

In recent years, middle managers have become corporate whipping boys. Generally accused of intransigence and unreasonable loyalty to the old ways, they are blamed for putting up barriers that prevent senior executives communicating their go-getting visions to the rank and file.

But new research from the Cranfield School of Management offers a few crumbs of hope to this much-maligned species. Steven Floyd claims his studies show that far from being corporate dinosaurs and a burden on company resources, middle managers can play an important strategic role.

"Companies engaged in across-the-board downsizing and delayering may be throwing the baby out with the bath water," Floyd says. "They are ridding themselves of what they think is dead wood but are in fact losing vital strategic capability.

"Ironically, restructuring is linked with re-engineering but, in ditching middle managers, companies are losing the very people who have capacity to re-engineer its processes."

Floyd, associate professor of strategic management at Connecticut University and a visiting professor at Cranfield, has identified four strategic roles for middle managers: championing innovative initiatives, facilitating adaptability to new behaviour, synthesising information (both within and outside the organisation) and implementing strategy.

How well middle managers perform these roles has a direct bearing on a company's overall ability to pursue its strategies and maintain its competitive advantage, according to the professor.

Moreover, the study of 250 managers in 25 organisations highlights the importance of middle management involvement in the formulation of new strategies as well as in the implementation of existing strategies, says Floyd, who - with Bill Wooldridge - has written a book, The Strategic Middle Manager (published last year by Jossey Bass), that explains why the old model of middle management no longer works.

They conclude: "Organisations need to understand the potential strategic value of middle management. They cannot rely solely on top managers to create successful strategies as they are often not sufficiently in touch with changes in the market or in technology.

"Instead, alternative strategies need to emerge from the middle up: top management's role is to recognise when a good strategy comes along and find the resources to support it," they write.

The suggestion that middle managers are not necessarily as doomed as has been thought should come as a welcome surprise to young people who have been brainwashed into thinking they are being prepared for a world with no promise of work.

Eighty-one per cent of final-year undergraduates feel insecure about the world of work, according to a survey published today by recruitment specialists Reed Graduates. Even once they find work, more than half remain insecure in their first jobs.

Yet about half of final-year students are excited about the world of work and nearly 90 per cent feel they will gain work with opportunities for advancement

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