Why managing in the digital age is not what it used to be

By on July 31, 2013

Change is a constant in business, it always has been, and managers have played a vital role in ensuring that employees are not alienated or left behind; that they adapt and embrace the new no matter how confronting or unsettling that change may be. 

Entrepreneurs and strategists respond to change by innovating, identifying new opportunities and pushing boundaries. But the pace of change in the digital age has become so rapid and relentless that keeping up has become a particular challenge for the change-managers and change-adapters.

At the Melbourne Press Club luncheon on Thursday, three of Australia’s most successful chief executive-entrepreneurs discussed the challenges of adapting to the digital economy – and warned that many companies and managers were being left behind.


Companies slow to adapt to the digital economy are being caught flat-footed by nimble competitors who are taking market share through the strength of their digital offering.

Managers without digital skills – lacking not just the technical skills but an appreciation of the impact that technology and changing consumer behaviour is having in the economy, and the opportunities they present – are holding back many previously successful businesses.

There is a significant shortfall of skills to transform Australian business in the digital economy..

Managers’ failure to adapt is based on an inability – or unwillingness – to understand the extent to which changes in the digital economy have transformed businesses, and management roles.

New people need to be effectively de-programmed from the historical techniques they have used to manage people. It’s the preparedness to push the responsibility of the decision-making down to the people below you who have the expertise.”

A potential crisis

Companies that feel the urgency to adapt to the new economy are instituting major changes – including job losses, resource cuts and radical restructuring – and they are doing so at a bewildering pace that is leaving their employees behind.

In an age when corporate leaderships have become as adept at spin as the most wily politician, despite the proliferation of internal communication many employees are at a loss as to where their company is going, whether their job is safe or if they have a career path any more.

The combination of change, lack of meaningful communication and uncertainty can cripple a workplace and stifle the innovation, creativity and commitment that companies need to transform their businesses.

The companies and management consultants that come up with grand plans to transform the business in a rapidly changing economy need to understand that sustainable success comes not from the drawing board but the workplace.

Critical role

Managers have always played a critical role in steering their teams through the uncertainty and confusion of change, but companies have to properly resource them to fulfil that role.

Companies that do not provide their managers with adequate information, training and authority cannot expect them to perform miracles in the swirl of rapidly changing workplaces and markets.

Instead, the prevailing culture of perpetual cutbacks means that necessary training of managers is either not happening, or it is woefully inadequate. That training is not only to ensure that managers can adapt to new workplaces, technologies and markets, but also to ensure that they have the confidence and the skills to communicate with, motivate and empower staff.

The challenge for companies in this vastly changing environment is not only to provide their managers with the necessary skills and resources, but also to ensure that they are appointing the right people to positions of responsibility. This means a re-evaluation of the criteria by which managers and executives are recruited and, internally, how emerging managers and leaders are identified, nurtured and developed.

Greg Ellis notes that business “needs a damn big wake-up call”. It will probably take several before the message gets through, but there is no doubt that Ellis’ opening salvo is a timely one.

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