Shifting Organizational Models – Are We Ready?

Posted on February 17, 2009. Filed under: Professional | Tags: , , , , |

I have been a student of organizational development for some time. Although I’ve never been paid to perform OD work, I’ve done a bit of reading on the topic. One man who stands out for me after many years of reading (no, I’m not old enough to have known him personally!) is Fredrick Taylor, the father of scientific management. He looked at work very mechanistically. His goal was to break every task in a work process into its most simple elements. By studying these elements individually, his scientific approach would reveal a single best way of doing the work that could be repeated over and over. Of course, this meant individual workers were discouraged from innovating once that task was defined, because it went contrary to the scientific data. Supervisors were brought in to connect related activities across ever expanding and complex workflows. Only the few people in the organization that had a system-wide view were expected to make decisions due to the interactions of each component.

The Traditional Pyramid Organization Model Interpreted

Taylor’s ideas applied by Henry Ford are responsible for much of today’s current organization design including the ubiquitous pyramid shaped organization hierarchy with “HEAD-quarters” on top, supervisors (also known as super-visors or OVER-SEERS) in the middle and the “hired HANDS” or “FOOT soldiers” on the broad-based bottom. Pardon my very crude artwork and refer to the first diagram as to how such an organization might be dramatically redrawn from the traditional depiction of a pyramid with lines and boxes. Notice there is only one person at the top compared to more in the middle and many at the bottom. Obviously, the leaders are special and therefore more unique and fewer in number. The troops at the base of the pyramid, in contrast, are numerous and quite common.

Traditional Organizational Pyramid, Interpreted

Traditional Organizational Pyramid, Interpreted

The physical attributes of each character — leader, supervisor, employee — are important too. Each level’s inherent qualities — whether they be thinking, watching and listening, or doing and moving — are reflected in their relative size. The role of management in this model is literally as “organizational glue” for keeping everything together and running smoothly. If a person on the production line (or phone line or data line) is not supposed to think, because all thinking is done at headquarters, then many managers are required to connect very different activities in the organization so those few doing the thinking can know what is happening. Because humans have limits to how much any one can observe, the more complex an organization’s value stream, the more layers of management are required to keep it working.

Now consider a second model of what an organization might look like. This is a commonly held view of how organizations REALLY operate. Pioneers in social networking have gotten better and better at identifying and mapping such informal organization structures. Indeed, the motion picture industry has used this type of model for many years where experts in a variety of fields come together for a year or two to create a motion picture then disband to go onto other projects. They may work together on the next project or they may work with entirely new experts. But they all have standards that define what each of them does and how it is to be done.

I believe this is a better picture of how organization design will look in the future. Notice in the illustration — as in “real life” — the characters all have normally proportioned body parts and are all equally sized. This represents the importance of members in a network serving equal roles. While relative importance may shift around the network based on the task at hand, all members of the network are contributors — they all think, monitor and act! Although the entire system may be jeopardized when any component is not functioning optimally, it is organic and can adjust easily to changing conditions.

The pyramid is dead, long live the network!

Network Organization Model

Network Organization Model

Remember Ford’s production line? You could have any color of Model T you wanted, as long as it was black! Those days are long gone. Now speed and customization is king. We are even starting to see evolution beyond simply making choices available. Now, especially with complex products, providing customizable bundles of features based upon application is gaining in importance. At HP for instance, I may decide I’m a “gamer” and therefore my PC “needs to have” the performance bundle of features. Whereas the “home office” customer doesn’t need all that gamer-type muscle but opts for the more robust operating system that will perform mundane tasks more simply. I am seeing signs within my own company of the traditional pyramid beginning to crack under the weight of these “smart” customization demands.

Why is this network operating model possible NOW?

I believe it has a lot to do with information technology (IT) developments of the past few years as accelerated by increasing bandwidth and more sophisticated Web 2.0 tools. This blog and the social network that houses it are examples. These, along with wikis, RSS feeds, powerful semantic search engines and many other capabilities are bringing the “power to the people” and putting contributors on equal ground based upon what they know AND share. No longer is “knowledge power,” instead knowledge is more like water through a faucet — it only has power when the faucet is turned on and the information is flowing.

The concept of command and control becomes separated. Fred and Merrelyn Emery address this in their concept of whole systems. In this theory, command is the realm of management and comprises setting a long-term vision and purpose for the organization and communicating this vision consistently and continuously. It is management’s responsibility to align the organization and hold it accountable for performing to the vision. Control, on the other hand, belongs to the people who are doing the work. Nobody knows better when something isn’t working than the people who are making it happen — those individuals who interact with the consumer. Employees are empowered to make decisions within the values of the organization as communicated by management and their knowledge of what is needed in the moment.

In this new model, information technology and collaborative behavior are the “glue” in the organization and replace the role of the supervisor. Because computers can be always on and everywhere, the people in the middle can be freed to either provide leadership or become subject matter experts among the network of contributors in the company. Remember the Peter Principle? It assumed that people are promoted to their highest level of incompetence. In an open system everyone does what they do best.

Now, the only thing missing in this master plan for shifting the structure of organizations from pyramids to networks is the means… more on that later!

This blog article was originally posted by me in a different forum, a social network hosted by called LearningTown. I’ve moved it here to link with some of the more recent “professional” writing I’ve been doing.

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