Workplace and organization design

Running a session this week on organization design led to the participant group raising questions and then discussing the differences and similarities between workplace design, workplace strategy, workplace design strategy, and organization design.

There was no real conclusion except that semantics matter, and in order not to confuse our clients and ourselves we need to clarify the terms, or stick with one agreed short description that covers the range.

Attempting to clarify this for myself I found an article by Eric Olsen, Workplace Design Strategy: An Alternative View. In this he compares Galbraith's Five Star model with Hurst's soft bubble model. He does this in the context of discussing a paper, Solving the Right Problem: A Strategic Approach to Designing Today's Workplace, written by Arnold Craig Levin in the Spring 2007 issue of the Design Management Review.

Levin's paper builds on a previous one he published Changing the role of workplace design within the business organisation: A model for linking workplace design solutions to business strategies published in the Journal of Facilities Management in 2005. In the abstract Levin notes that:

"With the continuous changing nature of work and increasing demands on business organisations to remain competitive and to continually innovate, while controlling ever increasing real estate costs, the role of the workplace remains the battle ground between an organisation's cost savings strategy, its efforts to retain the status quo, serve as a facilitator of change and stand as a visual statement of the brand. While organisations continue to build facilities that range from newer adaptations of their previous model to what some may deem radical departures with the goal of creating new ways of working, the selection of what course of planning direction to take is still often left to a methodology that is removed from the long-term strategic objectives of the organisation."

Levin uses Galbraith's Star Model – commonly used by the organization design people in the field that I work in – as a foundation for arguing that space (workplace) and the organizational elements of Galbraith's model i.e. strategy, structure, process, people, and rewards must be considered collectively to develop workplaces that allow work to be done by people in a way that optimizes business performance.

He implies that traditionally office facilities have been designed and built predominantly from a brief drawn up by the organization's senior leadership team and facilities managers. This is unlikely to improve business performance as much as facilities conceived jointly by anthropologists, sociologists, other experts (e.g. IT), organization behaviorists, employees, managers, and organizational customers.

He is right to do this. Workplace – the physical and virtual space in which people work – is not part of the realm of traditional organization designers and should be and thus the argument runs two ways. Designers and architects need to include what is traditionally the sphere of organization design in their work and organization designers need to include what is traditionally the sphere of architects and designers in their work. This is starting to happen – Levin is one in the vanguard, and other architects and designers have increasingly over the last few years been entering the 'designing business' field, see for example Roger Martin's book The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage.

So now that there is a movement to consider space design and use as integral to organization performance it is becoming increasingly urgent to do two things:

First to help professional architects/space people and organizational development people see their common ground and pool the skills that both bring to bear on organizational performance rather than both believe that they can do the other's work.

Galbraith's original 5-star model is insufficient to help with this as it reflects a period when organizations were theorized as closed mechanistic systems. He has since adapted it towards a more open systems model but it stills fall short of a models based on more current organizational theories drawn from chaos, and complexity which conceive of organizations as organic, shifting networks. This seems to be the thought underpinning the Hurst model (though I see this was developed almost thirty years ago in 1984 which perhaps puts it in era of theories of organizations as open systems).

The effects of this evolving theoretical change in perception of organizations may coincidentally be giving rise architecturally to interiors offering collaboration spaces, huddle rooms, touch down spots, and so on. Such workplaces are further enabled by evolving technologies that offers collaboration possibilities, mobile/remote working, and very different ways of operating business processes. And it is here that the Hurst soft bubble model comes into play.

I had not come across this model but reading the Olsen article realized that, generally speaking, it reflects the playing field of organizational development, while Galbraith's model reflects the playing field of organizational design. Discarding for the moment my earlier comment that they are rooted in an older version of systems thinking looking at them side by side presents a nice visual illustrating that organizations thinking of changing their space and/or space layouts need expertise and input from architects/designers, organizational designers, and organizational developers. (Not to mention from the employees and customers who are actually going to be working in and using the space).

The expertise from organizational designers, and organizational developers is necessary because all too often there is little conscious or substantial, in the way of developing employees – who have largely been trained to work in a traditional organizational model – to consider new work processes and to develop the skills to work in a way that reflects the opportunities the new types of space and technologies offer. For example, managers lack confidence to manage remote and virtual workers, performance management is often rooted in the conventional appraisal system, employees worry about loss of visual status symbols like private offices, and the effects on their productivity of working in space that might be noisy and where it is easy to be distracted, work processes may continue as if in the old space, and so on.

Second then, if space layouts are being changed then some work must be done to specifically and consciously enable people to look again at the way they do work and build their confidence and capability to realign their work processes and systems in order to work in a new way. Not doing this is a missed opportunity to have a significantly positive impact on business performance

Architects and designers are not equipped to take on the business and employee capability development role in the same way that organization designers and developers are not equipped to take on the architect's role although unfortunately some in both camps think they can. (Though it says something that an organizational developer would have difficulty joining the AIA as an architect, but it would be a lot easier for an architect to join the OD Network as an organization developer).

A better approach is for any space design or build project to have alongside the architects/designers on the team people with expertise in organization design and development, IT, HR, facilities, and business process development. Additionally employee representatives are a must. This diversity of perspective is likely to result in the conscious engagement and development of employees and confirmation that IT systems will work and business process be aligned and the new space potential realized.

This suggestion doesn't yet sort out the semantic differences and similarities between workplace design, organization design, etc that I am still grappling with but I am moving towards the notion that workplace is more about the space, while organization is more about the people, process, and technology, and therefore the phrase 'workplace and organization' would neatly cover both, and lead to project phasing along the lines of: Business strategy confirmation, workplace and organization design strategy, development, planning, implementation, and review.

If you have any neat definitions that would work to cover both workplace and design in a straightforward way let me know.

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