Organization Design and the New Normal

Last week I got a reminder from the Organization Design Forum that:

We Are Now Welcoming Proposals for 90 minute Concurrent Sessions for ODF's 2011 Annual Conference! May 9-12, 2011 Austin, Texas – The Omni Hotel "Beyond Structure: Designing for Engagement in the New Normal"

As organizations continue to anticipate, adapt and respond to an uncertain environment, engaging employees and customers through design must take on new approaches, shapes and forms. Both traditional and non-traditional elements of design must be considered as organizations look to the future. This conference will provide the forum for skilled practitioners, academicians and business leaders to learn, discuss, debate and practice the next generation of organization design methodologies.
Criteria and suggestions are in the Call for Presenters form which can be downloaded from our website.

Also last week I was asked by the HR Society, for whom I'm running an organization design workshop in London on May 23 whether I was "happy for the event to be titled 'Organisation Design' again in did you have an alternative title in mind? Also would you like me to use the 'blurb' from last year's event or would you like to send through an updated version?"

At the same time the UK's CIPD is introducing an element of certification into its organization design program and I've been involved in commenting on that.

So these three things set me thinking about organization design in the 'new normal'. So what is the 'new normal'? For some reason 'normal' to me implies some kind of predictability within a given range, as in 'serve the wine at normal room temperature", or 'normal working hours are 9:00 – 5:00'. It seems to be about a predictable environment. So a 'new normal' would imply a predictable environment but a new one.

Making a strange leap I remembered an article I'd just read on NASA scientist's discovery about

A bacterium discovered in a Californian lake appears to be able to use arsenic in its molecular make-up instead of phosphorus – even incorporating the toxic chemical into its DNA. That's significant because it goes against the general rule that all terrestrial life depends on six elements: oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, sulphur and phosphorus. These are needed to build DNA, proteins and fats and are some of the biological signatures of life that scientists look for on other planets.

Christened GFAJ-1, the microbe lends weight to the notion held by some astrobiologists that there might be "weird" forms of life on Earth, as yet undiscovered, that use elements other than the basic six in their metabolism.

A organizational 'new normal' might then be discovering that what operates an organization is not the standard five elements (for Galbraith acolytes) or seven (for Mckinsey people) but a different set of elements but what could these be, and where to search for them?

I'm guessing that they are around web based interactions. (I see I'm hesitating to use the word 'organization'!) Many of these, Boing Boing is one, are constructed in ways that defy a conventional approach to 'design'. We could search for them on the web in web based organizations. But maybe we just need to look through different lenses at what already exists in 'normal' organizations. As Paul Davies of Arizona State University, one of the scientists says in the New Scientist report on the discovery:

"It could also be that this 'weird life' is all around us, intermingled with carbon-based life. If so, it's going to be hard to detect, as we would have to find a way to first filter everything out,"

Maybe the new normal is already in organizations and we just have to do a similar filtering process – and organization design will be about filtering what is the 'old normal' out to concentrate efforts on the 'new normal' – predictable but in a different range, and one that we didn't realize or know existed.