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The New Deal for digital managers in the age of the coronavirus

Le New Deal des managers du numérique à l’ère du coronavirus
Published on
12 May 2021

The health crisis has changed the way we work outside the company walls and new foundations are being laid for management in the era of digitalized work. Managers in the digital sector, HR managers and executives are reexamining the purpose of their roles, and are addressing the triptych of trust, the impact of digital technologies and responsibility.

Interview with Arnaud Tonnelé, Executive coach and organization coach at Kea & Partners, the first B-Corp certified consulting firm. A former professor at GEM, he is the author of several works on team transformation and efficiency. With Cécile Séon, director of the Executive management IS and digital program at GEM, he recently hosted a webinar on the theme: "Trust, impact and awareness: the three-part challenge for digital managers in the age of the coronavirus".

At the height of the health crisis, remote working has shown that most employees have been motivated by working away from their managers. What do you think?

For decades it was thought that if you didn't see people, they didn't do anything. The first lockdown showed that this was not the case, that employees were 100% committed to their team, company and organization. In the companies we support in implementing new forms of work, we have noticed that the real risk was far more over-commitment than under-commitment. It was a real breakthrough for many!

But in the end, it is hardly surprising: individuals disengage from work when they do not have enough independence, when they are infantilized, when they are told in detail what to do and how to do it, and when they spend more time saying what they are doing than doing it. The health crisis swept all that away. We refocused on the essentials: producing and selling. We were forced to leave it up to our employees, and, surprise surprise, they were able to find solutions on their own. "Finally, they let us work!" is probably the phrase we've heard the most.

What is your analysis of the role of managers during the health crisis?

2020 had some nice "hidden gifts" in store for us. Working from home has once again made management and work the focus. When you don't have to come to the office anymore, managers are forced to rethink the way they work together: what do we do together? How do we do it? What is the purpose of our group?

The methods of collective work must be rethought and reinvented. And together: with the team. It is time for discussion, trust and creativity. It doesn't happen by itself. Managers need to be supported in this task.

The health crisis has made it clearer than ever that the old managerial models are outdated, unsuited to today's world and today's expectations. Every day in their personal lives, employees are educated, informed and independent. Yet, once they walk through the door of their company, they are told: "You will do as you are told." Inevitably, this is a problem.

The worst thing that can happen to an organization is that its employees do what it expects. Because then, it's goodbye to commitment, creativity, flexibility and innovation. We put a lot of energy into recruiting smart people, and once they're recruited, we want them to leave their intelligence at home. In a predictable and planned world, it's good to have people who accomplish tasks. In today's VUCA world, this is potentially deadly.

What is the use of a manager, if they are no longer there to control?

It's very simple: they are there to manage! And management is not control. We only control people we do not trust or who are not competent. In both cases, the ball is in the manager's court: either to create or recreate the conditions of trust, or to increase the level of competence amongst employees. The role of the manager in developing the skills of their employees has been somewhat forgotten in recent decades. Management means taking care of your employees: listening to them, checking in with them, helping them, giving them the means they need, encouraging them and supporting them. This is a far cry from weekly monitoring and reporting. 

This crisis has also reset priorities, albeit a little abruptly, by upsetting the usual hierarchy of jobs. This crisis has shown that many jobs (including mine) can be shut down, and that the vital functions of the country do not stop. This is what David Graeber tried to show with his notion of bullshit jobs. Lockdowns have shown that jobs at the bottom of the income scale are infinitely more useful than many others that fill head offices. 

The brutality of the health crisis - which will most likely be followed by others - has also shown the futility of forecasting activities. In this regard, I cannot refer enough to the work of Nassim Taleb, a former trader, who invented the notion of "black swans", i.e. highly improbable events with incalculable consequences. Our companies focus their energy on what is predictable, and neglect the improbable. This is an error in reasoning with tragic consequences: it is highly probably that unlikely events will happen. We must be prepared for them. But this implies looking a little further ahead than the next quarter and, above all, thinking with other mind-sets. 

This crisis has also given us a taste of two virtues that we had forgotten - in the West at least - for a long time: humility and patience. This too is a hidden gift of the health crisis.

We are still in a state of crisis. What do you recommend to IS managers?

The first recommendation: reconsider their schedules, incorporating longer decision times.  Decisions are never, ever made as quickly as the project managers' schedules anticipate. French speakers talk about "taking a decision".  Anglo-Saxons use the term "to make a decision". A decision is made, worked on and developed. A lot of stress in projects comes from underestimating the time it takes for decisions to come to fruition. As a result, we are always late. Human beings are not machines which data can be entered into to make decisions.

The second recommendation: learn. I am always surprised at how little feedback is used. We learn in all areas of social life ; we don't, however, learn very much, or at least not enough, about business. The same mistakes are made 1,000 times and the same procedures are repeated 1,000 times, even when we see that they don't work. It's silly. Stupidity is the error that persists, as Bruno Jarrosson would say. That's what my latest book, Comment réussir à échouer plus vite et plus efficacement (How to Fail Faster and More Effectively), is all about. It's a shame, for everyone.

The third recommendation: Leave the tools in their place. I know that this will not necessarily please IS experts, but tools must not go beyond their status as tools, i.e. the means to achieve something. Unfortunately, the opposite is happening: humans are having to adapt to tools, not the other way around. The goal of computers was to liberate humans. But what are we witnessing? People who spend more time trying to understand their new software than taking care of the customer - I am sure that every one of you has heard the phrase "we changed the software" in the last 12 months.  It's a source of frustration for everyone.

The race for data is another area where common sense is being lost. We try to store as much data as possible, in case we miss some. For the record, on September 11, 2001, 19 men, 4 planes and 1 hour of time managed to bring the most tech-equipped country in the world to its knees. The challenge today is not to store, but to select and locate relevant information. We are overwhelmed with information, but we lack intelligence. One only has to look at the difficulty we have in addressing the major issues of our time. We need people who think, not just algorithms that reason in "if... then...". And thinking means making connections that have never been made before between things, events and timings. It requires human sciences and general culture, not just technical knowledge. Higher education institutions should get on board with this.

According to you, IS managers in particular have certain responsibilities. What are they?

When you have power, you have responsibility, and tech experts have power. As power increases, the level of awareness must increase. Thus, it is not technology that should dictate what we do, but we as humans must do this.  What is the purpose of what I do? What is the meaning of my work? What will be its scope? Does my work lead to improvements, or not? You can't just say to yourself: I'm making an application or a software and I don't care what it's going to be used for. That's not a tenable position anymore. Everyone must take responsibility for what they do and consider the consequences of their work.

"Science without conscience is but the ruin of the soul", wrote Rabelais. Today, the challenge is to increase the level of awareness among IS managers with regard to the new societal perspectives and the upheavals caused by the crises. Today's crisis and those that will follow must be opportunities to rethink what we do and how we do it.

 « Science sans conscience n'est que ruine de l'âme », écrivait Rabelais. Aujourd'hui, l'enjeu est d'accroître le niveau de conscience des managers des SI au regard des nouvelles perspectives sociétales et des bouleversements induites par les crises. Celle d'aujourd'hui comme celles qui lui succèderont doivent être des opportunités de repenser ce que l'on fait et comment on le fait.

Latest work published by Arnaud Tonnelé : Comment réussir à se planter plus vite et plus efficacement, Eyrolles, 2020.

Training Program - Executive IS Manager: a dual managerial and technical skill

The Executive Manager of Information Systems and Digital Training Programallows students to acquire dual managerial and technological skills in the field of corporate information systems.
Supported by a dynamic, recognized industry and sponsored by major companies, this program provides access to three chosen professions: CIO, expert consultant in IS management and IS project manager.
The innovative education program, taught at the GEM Labs campus in Grenoble, is aimed at candidates with a minimum of two years of higher education (or equivalent) and four years of significant professional experience in the field of information systems and digital technology, and via the VAE. The course, equivalent to 5 years of higher education, leads to a level 7 qualification, Information Systems and Digital Manager, registered in the National Directory of Professional Certifications (RNCP).
The courses are delivered in French by renowned speakers (20% GEM professors and researchers - 80% professional practitioners), and are based on theoretical and practical learning, directly related to the reality of the market, and based on real business cases (integrative projects). The benefits of the course allow you to: 

  • Supervise information system projects and support business units in their digital transformation
  • Develop and manage an information systems strategy and establish its governance;
  • Manage people and multidisciplinary information systems teams;
  • Manage information security and monitoring;
  • Implement the information systems purchasing policy, as well as a responsible policy for the company's digital activities.

Duration and format of the program, compatible with a professional position

Part-time: 38 face-to-face days spread over 12 months - 1 5-day session in January, then 11 3-day sessions (Thursday, Friday, Saturday) in the following months, for a total of 294 hours. Next session: January 17, 2022.

Cécile Séon is in charge of the Executive IS Manager course at GEM, and is also a senior consultant on IT-MDM-ERP integration projects in relation with companies. With 25 years of experience in IT program management, Cécile Séon has moved from finance to IT, from operational functions to management functions in industry, IT services and education. As a result-oriented consultant and manager, she has worked as an ERP expert, project and program manager, and director of IT training departments in the energy, automotive and outdoor sectors.

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