Design Flaws and Suggestions

At the Organization Design Forum Conference in Atlanta earlier in the week Shoshana Zuboff, the now retired Charles Edward Wilson Professor of Business Administration, at Harvard Business School was the hit of the event. Unfortunately I missed her as I was traveling but I took a look at a couple of You Tube clips of her talking. Her seven minutes on design flaws in organizational structure resonated.

She talks of 'chapters of capitalism' and asks how we realign our commercial operations with new needs. Which she suggests is very difficult. I guess much of her video clip is drawn from her book The Support Economy: Why Corporations Are Failing Individuals and the Next Episode of Capitalism as she proposes a new chapter of capitalism based on serving the new needs of customers that are grounded in personal empowerment and expression. I haven't read the book yet – although when I went to put in on my Amazon wish list after the conference I discovered that it was already on my list. 'Amazon' politely told me that since I was trying to put it on my list again it would move it to the top. I've now ordered the book from my local library.

Then I noticed that the clip I was listening to was an extract from one of the MLab events Management design flaws and radical remedies that took place in 2009 and I wended my way to the original site where I found that the event was reported as "bringing together a "Renegade Brigade" that included many of the world's most progressive thinkers on management and organization. Each participant was asked to identify a key barrier that prevents organizations from being adaptable, innovative, or an inspiring place to work; and then to propose a potential solution."

There are thirty-four video clips from a range of academics, venture capitalists, and CEOs who all identified their views of the critical flaws of "management-as-usual" and posited innovative solutions. The suggestions included:

David Wolfe who suggests replacing the machine metaphor for organizing business with a biological system metaphor. (Amazing what happens in 3 years as this is now a standard suggestion).

James Surowiecki who speaks about the concentration of power in the hands of a small number of executives, especially the CEO. He proposes the systematic aggregation and sharing of collective knowledge to improve decision making. I think this is a development on his book The Wisdom of Crowds or maybe on crowdsourcing.

Keith Sawyer speaks about the bounded nature of the corporation, and proposes designing mechanisms to exploit "collaborative webs" of skills beyond the boundaries of the corporation, including customers and business partners.

Julian Birkinshaw's flaw amused me. Rightly he said that organizations are predominantly discussed from a manager or leader perspective and rarely from an employee perspective. Paradoxically nearly all the speakers could also have put the employee perspective. Birkinshaw works in the London Business School (or did at the time of the event) and I remember from my own life as a higher education employee enjoying the lampooning of academic organizational life delightfully portrayed in books by David Lodge, among others.

But I am slightly uneasy on the line-up in that they are all what one of my bosses called 'the usual suspects' – in this case predominantly US/UK educated and speaking from that Anglo-Saxon orientation. This is because earlier in the week I was speaking at a European Commission event and put up a history of organization development in terms of 'leaders' in the field – Lewin, Trist, Argyris, Beckhard, , and so on.

One of the participants thought it was a subjective history because it was so US/UK centric. However, I was hard pushed to come up with other globally recognized 'leaders' in the organization development (or design) field – and so were other participants. Any suggestions on this would be welcome.

Going back to Zuboff's point about the changing nature of capitalism I was interested to read in the Economist of April 21 (just catching up on this after a couple of weeks away) the pull-out 'A third industrial revolution' largely discussing digital manufacturing. In the leader introducing the pull-out the observation is made that the lines between manufacturing and services are blurring and that governments should adjust their inclination to protect industries and companies. If this were to happen it may go some way towards Zuboff's suggestion.

Now returning to the MLab event, Keith Sawyer's piece is particularly interesting as he has a view that suggests designing organizations as networks and webs of multiple others – a no-borders organization. I like this because this is a view I share (I am typically human in that I have more difficulty accepting an opposing view than an affirming view). I am not sure how this develops a 1998 book The Boundaryless Organization by Ron Ashkenas and others. that I did read years ago but have forgotten (unless it was the one that gave me my view that organizations are not bounded entities). But Sawyer's suggestion was apparent in many of the presentations given at the ODF conference.

Chris Worley, for example, talked of examples from his new book (2011) Management Reset: Organizing for Sustainable Effectiveness which is much more focused on webs and networks. And others mentioned the fact that a lot of the networking notions have been made possible by advances in technologies. Rob Cross among others is well advanced in the field of organizational network mapping.

What all of these ideas lack relate back to is a question that Birkinshaw did not ask. The question is "How do you design organizations as networks and webs in a way that makes sense to an individual employee and/or is employee centric." In my experience employees are much less interested in academic (or leadership) notions of organization effectiveness via networks or whatever, and much more interested in stuff like where can they hang their coat in an open plan office. My challenge is involving employees in designing effective networks of organizations that work in the day to day to produce results. I'm working on it. Help welcome.