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The digital dysfunctions of management

This blog was posted by Tom Beardshaw on January 8, 2016 as part of the CultureHive Digital Marketing Academy. You can find out more about the project here.

This year working as a Mentor on the CultureHive Digital Marketing Academy has been a difficult one for me. Most of the Fellows I’ve been working with have found themselves going through struggles in their working context that have made their participation in the DMA difficult for them to sustain and really benefit from the focussed learning experience.

None of their problems have been caused by the Academy or its programme. Largely, it’s all been about poor, chaotic and unsupportive management above them. I’ve been working with people who have seen multiple management changes, temporary managers who have little or no understanding of digital work, and even some who have seen marketing itself as a cost centre that needs to be cut, rather than an investment that leads to income.

Management this year for my Fellows have often not been able to enable and develop them, let alone give them the space to create innovative learning focussed experiments. I have met Fellows who have been dealing with multiple frustrations and new obstacles every time we meet. For some, this has made their basic operational workload almost impossible to handle, and priorities and budgets uncertain and insecure. The task of being able to engage with a demanding learning process with a steep learning curve has been made far more challenging than it should have been.

Now, I must stress that I don’t think that this has been done on purpose. Rather it has been about rapid organisational change that has left digital marketers exposed and without support, or it has been the result of people who have little or no experience of digital marketing being made responsible for managing people whose work they don’t understand. But it has been a difficult year for some of my Fellows, and I’ve felt their frustrations.

At the beginning of this second year of CultureHive’s DMA, we realised that our Fellows had been struggling to find time to be able to devote to the programme and needed to get more support from their organisation and the individuals that they were reporting to. To try to ensure that they were engaging with the Academy in a more supportive context, this year we asked for a more formal declaration of support from their organisation and even a financial commitment approved by their managers.

So what has happened? Some of the problems have been about organisations trying to cope with cuts, managers who understood the commitment moving on, and some leaders failing to prioritise digital work that they have difficulty understanding and engaging with. What has been common to the Fellows that I have seen struggling is that they have had no leadership or strategic framework for their digital work, leaving them in a position where they have had to both manage and deliver their organisation’s digital output in the context of an organisation which has no clarity about what it is trying to achieve digitally, or why.

Whatever the reasons for it, I’ve seen real problems faced by Fellows on the DMA who have seen support for their daily work undervalued and under supported. They’ve often been overloaded with responsibilities and they are trying to fit a challenging learning experience into the middle of an already difficult situation.

Digital marketers spend most of their working lives scaling a steep learning curve and the CultureHive Digital Marketing Academy is a fantastic framework for embedding that learning into their operational role. They are learning new technical skills in the context of roles that involve performing complex creative and analytic tasks within organisations that are juggling multiple priorities within a fragile funding environment. It’s a tricky mix that can easily go wrong. Ensuring that they have consistent and supportive management that can help them to navigate their operational roles while they take on the learning challenges of the programme is vital.

I think we can all ask ourselves what are the key qualities of management that digital arts marketers taking part in the CultureHive DMA need? At a minimum, they need to provide a supportive working environment where priorities are clearly articulated and the place of digital work within the marketing mix is well understood and regularly discussed. I think they need to have a consistent commitment to their digital worker’s participation in the DMA experiments, allowing them time to experiment and reflect a willingness to conduct an ongoing dialogue about how their development and application of digital marketing work fits into the activity of the organisation as a whole.

What would other Fellows have wanted from a ‘fantasy management’ setup as they took part in the CultureHive DMA process?

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