Auburn Symphony Orchestra at Benaroya Hall

A recent McKinsey report focusing on the substitution of machines for human labour prompts us to contemplate how a symphony orchestra might offer insights to leadership models for digital era organisations.

One of many factors shaping future business models is the automation of tasks. The first era of automation, from the 80’s onward, led to filing cabinets being replaced by information systems. However, people still participated in almost every individual transaction and paper-pushing was replaced by data entry and approvals.

Looking forward, McKinsey believes that people could be replaced in up to 45% of all tasks. Unsurprisingly, it’s repetitive manual, data collection and data entry work that top the list. At the opposite end of the scale, client interactions, unpredictable work and managing people are much less likely to be candidates for automation.

McKinsey: Where machines could replace humans — and where they can’t (yet)

Let’s assume McKinsey is right and flip forward to the transformed organisation.

While the detail isn’t clear, a few of the contributing factors are becoming clearer.

Commodity work will move outside the organisation and be substantially automated. Where proximity to other tasks is important, the outsourced implementation will be integrated physically or logically into the workplace or workflow. Production-line robotics managed by a specialist provider and integrated cloud-based IT services are two of today’s examples.

With the outsourcing of commodity tasks, corporate functions will have significantly smaller teams. 70-90% smaller for front-line tasks, if McKinsey’s predictions are correct!

As a result, future organisations can’t rely on having a few high-performing individuals in a big front-line team, who can handle the “difficult cases”. All the new-era front-line staff will need to be high performers. This leads to a different staff culture, different motivators and a different style of management.

Future organisations don’t have as many management layers – because there are many fewer front-line staff undertaking standardised tasks to oversee.

Perhaps the biggest shift will be the end of the “factory” or “bureaucracy” era –described as far back as 1901 by Fayol – precisely because the management pyramid exists because managing a large front-line workforce is the dominant task.

Maintaining the current kinds of management structure doesn’t make sense where the basic reason for its existence was to supervise a large front-line workforce.

Much outsourced functionality is standardised and subject to competitive pressures, so another key management task – ensuring an internal corporate function is aligned with current best practices – moves outside the organisation to the supplier. What replaces it is making sure your organisation makes best use of the functionality (the best supplier) available in the marketplace.

The factory/bureaucracy way of working is very different to the way work was organised in villages or cities in the pre-industrial era. And what’s next is likely to be equally different.

A word that increasingly being used to describe this new kind of work that is starting to replace management is orchestration.

I’m privileged to have some orchestra musicians as friends. Firstly, they are highly proficient technically and are expected to maintain and extend their own skills simply to maintain their employment. Secondly, they have a repertoire that they must have mastered before they sit down with the orchestra to put a performance together.

Enter the conductor, whose role isn’t to teach the musicians how to play, or even how to play a particular piece of music. The conductor’s role is to orchestrate all the players, to harmonise the nuances of each musician’s contribution, and to elicit from them an exquisite team performance.

It’s a very different management style – one conductor for 50+ highly trained, skilled and motivated people, each an expert in his or her own discipline.

Perhaps, as managers, we need to let go of managing. Expose those things we “manage” to market forces and externalise commodity work as soon as it becomes practical. Then, shift our primary focus to orchestrating the component parts of our enterprise into an exquisite team performance.

Orchestras and the Digital Era Workforce
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