Consulting in organization design

An MBA student emailed me about entering the field of organization design. She wrote:

To give you a bit of context, I'm very interested in human capital management, in particular how organizations manage and communicate change and how companies can structure themselves to maximize creativity/innovation and reduce silo-based, political decision-making.

My experience working as a special assistant to members of the C-suite of the company I was with pre-MBA gave me interesting perspective on the way talent was managed at the top and the trickle down effects those practices had on the organization as a whole.

I'd enjoy talking to you and getting your guidance on what to read, companies to think of as leaders in managing talent, and your general thoughts on what it means to work on HR issues in today's workplace.

In the phone conversation that followed she asked me a number of questions:

Q. What do you read/do to keep up to date?

A. I read The Economist, Fast Company, strategy+business, McKinsey Quarterly both on line and hard-copies (I subscribe to these). I also listen to the weekly HBR ideacast , and get daily email bulletins from the Financial Times, Washington Post, New York Times, World Futures Institute, Science Daily, and Accenture's My Outlook.

Q. What companies are good at managing talent?

A. Very few that I know of. In my view they focus on the wrong thing, for example career tracks that promote good technical people into management roles because there are few technical career tracks, and succession plans that assume workforce (and work) stability. Additionally they have, and work to, traditional views of 'leadership' that don't hold up in today's organizational contexts.

I did hear a podcast last week on How to Make HR Relevant with Susan Cantrell, fellow at the Accenture Institute for High Performance and coauthor of Workforce of One: Revolutionizing Talent Management Through Customization. She mentioned Best Buy as a company good at managing talent. Best Buy is a company I am interested in. They have just entered the UK in a partnership with Carphone Warehouse. They also have an interesting dual brand strategy in both Canada and China, and are doing very well with this.

Q. What are some trends to watch in organization design and human capital?

A. I've been wondering what the impact some of the new business models, particularly those from emerging markets, will have on organization designs and human capital management. It seems to me that these new models will demand different ways of thinking about people who work in them. For example, raising the question can the workforce 'be managed' in any of the established western company ways? It'll be interesting to see how HR practitioners respond to the challenge.

Q. What skills does an organization design consultant need?

A. An unrestrained, and non-judgmental curiosity: much as an ethnographer or anthropologist has. Organizations are not what they seem or present to outsiders – the public picture does not reveal any of the complexities of working there. (As anyone who has joined an organization discovers – rarely does the reality of the job match the expectation presented).

Following the observation, using an analytical capability that can synthesize information, interpret situations, and offer ways of solving problems or seizing opportunities.

Then a resilience and persistence in working to challenge existing perceptions and assumptions, encouraging people to try out new things, and to keep up with the changes going on outside the organization. Someone in one of my corporate organization development roles called me 'the grit in the oyster' – getting under people's skin yet helping to make good things happen is the role.

Q. How should I find out more about it?

A. Aim to find out by shadowing, talking to other people, and trying out job placements whether you are more interested in an internal/corporate or an external consulting role or do you want a specialist role, for example 'talent manager'? It's just by experimentation and active research that you'll find out where your interests lie. Take some courses directly relevant to the organization design/development field. (American University's NTL program is worth looking at). Read the writings of Edgar Schein for a refreshing view on the field.

Thank you.