Professor Colin Lindsay
New ways of working and leading in manufacturing
Advanced technologies such as robotics and AI, and other forms of digital innovation, open up important new opportunities for the transformation of work in UK manufacturing, with potential benefits for employees in terms of job quality and wellbeing, and for businesses in terms of improvements in productivity and innovation performance.
However, there are concerns that these benefits may not be fully realised if manufacturing businesses fail to innovate their leadership and people management practices to empower people to deploy technologies in an agile and effective way. Our research for the ESRC InterAct Network is working with manufacturing businesses to explore exactly these issues; what sort of changes in work organisation, people management and leadership are required if manufacturing employees across teams are to contribute to driving innovation and productivity?
One important clue as to what’s needed in leadership development might be provided by an emerging evidence base on the impact of ‘distributed leadership’ practices.
Distributed leadership and empowering people to innovate
One potential constraint on innovation in organisations is the concentration of leadership roles and authority among a small cadre of senior managers. That’s why in a range of organisations, especially in public services such as education and healthcare, there is growing interest in the value of an alternative approach of distributed leadership: “an approach to leadership that endorses work practices that combine knowledge, abilities and skills of many individuals… creating opportunities for leadership to emerge from individuals at all grades and levels within a team or organisation”. For example, Professor Graeme Currie and colleagues have argued that effective distributed leadership has been, and will continue to be, crucial to healthcare systems’ responses to the Covid-19 crisis.
It’s interesting that much of the current research on the challenges and opportunities of distributed leadership focuses on public services and other service sectors, with somewhat less interest from those studying manufacturing innovation. This is despite the fact that some of the seminal research on distributed leadership focused on its impact in manufacturing – more than thirty years ago, David Barry’s important research on so-called ‘bossless teams’ identified both opportunities in supporting team innovation performance and challenges where team members lacked the skills and resources to lead effectively. David Teece’s seminal work on dynamic capabilities – “the firm’s ability to integrate, build and reconfigure internal and external resources to address and shape rapidly changing business environments” – is another cornerstone for our research. It is notable that Teece and colleagues also cite distributed leadership as an important practice for dynamic and agile organisations in manufacturing and other sectors.
So, what sort of practices might be required for effective distributed leadership, and what are the potential benefits and risks for manufacturers?
Scoping the potential for distributed leadership as a route to innovation
InterAct Network researchers will be working with leading manufacturers in the coming months to explore what works in effective distributed leadership. But we already have some clues from existing research. Where distributed leadership has contributed to productivity and innovation, organisations have tended to make workplace investments to: develop leadership skills and identify succession pathways; re-design job roles to enhance autonomy; and create protected time and real or virtual spaces for leaders at different levels to collaborate and share ideas. The evidence suggests that these practices might be important, but also that context is crucial. Distributed leadership needs to be calibrated carefully to reflect the needs and capabilities of each organisation.
There are also potential challenges associated with promoting distributed leadership that need to be addressed, including: the risk of a fragmentation of accountability and unclear decision-making; gaps in leadership skills and capabilities; and limits to the time and resources available to people at different levels to participate in leadership activities.
A key theme for our InterAct research in the coming months will focus on how, and how effectively, some of our most innovative manufacturers adopt more distributed models of workplace and organisational leadership; the challenges and limits to such practices; and impacts in terms of job quality and innovation performance.
If you represent a manufacturing organisation and would like to share and learn from good practice in leadership and people management for innovation, join the InterAct Network today.
If you would like to access our free research on leadership and people management for innovation in manufacturing, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.