Management competence, in the age of knowledge worker


When we talk about competence, we almost always automatically think about technical or operational competence, how good people are at performing their jobs.  This is quite natural, as analyzing and improving competence is seen as a management responsibility, and therefore reflects on the people that are managed, i.e. people in the operational part of the organization.[1]

But what about the competence of management? Do managers ponder their own performance as easily as that of others? Or their own personal development?

In most organizations performance is managed top-down, i.e. each level in the organization is appraised by the level above, and in some cases by their peers. And because performance appraisal and competence assessments, albeit very different, go hand in hand[2], competence assessment is mostly performed on the same basis.

And yet, let’s face it, every day of our lives we are confronted with management incompetence.

In a matter of a few days I have been frustrated with poor service and food quality in several restaurants, exacerbated by lack of follow-up in spite of promised action, poor supermarket layout that forces customers to wander from end to end for related products, inconsistency in public service (processes at the whim of individuals), surprises when making a significant purchase in spite of 2 exploratory visits to the shop (products not available and only been told after signing the deal that I have to come back and collect!) and so on.

Management Owns the Process

And to add insult to injury, the usual excuse is that the products, the suppliers or the workers are to blame. Sorry, but we are past that one. Dr. W Edwards Deming demystified that one a long time ago.[3] Management owns the process and therefore is responsible.

So here is my main premise: The world is not grappling with a skills crisis. We have a management crisis. We’ve had it for as long as the word management was invented, but it has intensified since the dawning of the age of the “knowledge worker”.[4]

Since the shift from manual to intellectual labor, management has been seriously lost in the woods. So much so that, in order to counter the risk of self-redundancy most managers take on some operational responsibility to justify their existence. Peter Drucker himself, the man who coined the term “knowledge worker”, states that: “We have not yet begun to understand how to manage the knowledge worker”.

This has brought me, after long wanderings, to the two simple words in the title: Management competence. Each of these separate terms is a concept in its own right, each has extensive research behind it, and both have – the former perhaps more than the latter – whole libraries dedicated to them.

However, meaning is derived only when we internalize concepts for ourselves. Some say that theory becomes knowledge when it is applied.[5]  So in these pages I do not intend to recall the vast amount of theory that exists on these topics, but I’d like to derive some sense in combining the two, relate to some personal experience and generally gather some thoughts around management competence.

Deming: a Management Thinker

What many people do not know is that Dr. Deming, who became famous as a quality guru, developed more and more into a management thinker towards the end of his life. He had finally understood that the main purpose of quality management lies in the optimization of any given system, a system for which management is responsible, and that the solution resided much more in people than in any tool, technique or technical tour de force.

If I were asked to sum up Dr. Deming’s philosophy in one sentence of his own words, I would say that it was: “To transform our prevailing system of management”, because it “has destroyed our people”. And in order to achieve that, he believed we had to “equally transform our prevailing system of education, because they are the same system”.

Reading this last sentence about the close connection between management and education was almost like a revelation to me. It was as if a lingering, hazy suspicion suddenly emerged in bright light as a crystal clear thought. I had a few years before, in South Africa, presented a paper at a conference on director’s duties, about skills development duties of directors. If business owners must direct managers, they must at the same time direct the development of their future human capital, lest the organization perish.

But whereas my view was intuitive and circumstantial, Deming’s understanding is systemic and global!

“The essence of management is to make knowledge productive”

This thought is echoed by Peter Drucker, another great thinker and deep influence in my professional life, when he states that “the essence of management is to make knowledge productive”, in other words, to help people internalize theory and apply it in the right context, or simply, to help people learn, and if necessary, to teach them to learn.

So, if management and education are intrinsically linked, it can be argued that managers should first and foremost be learning facilitators. In other words, management KPI’s should include indicators such as knowledge transfer and people development, and competence in learning facilitation may be considered to be core in various management roles.

This is not a new idea. The concepts of Management by Walking around (MBWA) and Servant Leadership would be compatible with the role of the manager as facilitator of knowledge generation, dissemination, and application.

Hence my opening question about management competence. But before we can even think of conjuring up thoughts around these topics, we need to take a closer look at competence, learning and learning facilitation, as well as learning assessment. And as the science of learning is a behavioral one, we need to also look at behavior drivers as part of management science.

[1] The term “organization” as used here includes for-profit, non-profit, and government entities. Peter Drucker attached great value to the non-profit organization for management development.

[2] E.g. meeting personal development targets may be a key performance indicator in a performance appraisal.

[3] Dr. W Edwards Deming, “Out of the crisis”, MIT 1982.

[4] The term “knowledge worker” is attributed to Peter Drucker, and emerged around 1959.

[5] “Applied” is meant here as in the 3rd level of the cognitive (knowledge) domain, not the psychomotor (skills) domain. See “Bloom’s taxonomy – learning domains”