Questions on flexible organizations

This week someone sent me an email saying, 'I am currently enrolled in a University as a graduate student. I am conducting research on flexible organizations for my class. As part of the research project I need to interview some members of an organization who can share insights on flexible organizational design models.'

Given that I supervise learners doing business research (at Capella University) I felt duty-bound to help this person. I know how hard it is for students to find people and organizations to participate in their research. So I said I would talk with him. He sent a set of seven questions for our telephone discussion:

1. The term flexible organization implies that a company changes with the business environment but what does it mean to you?
2. Do you think that flexible organizations respond better to rapidly changing business environments?
3. In the rapidly changing Internet economy many businesses are designing new ways to interface with Internet users, relate to employees, and find new customers. What are some challenges that you have seen or experienced with organizations seeking an online presence?
4. Some companies claims to be flexible organizations. Can you describe one advantage to this type of organization from your perspective?
5. Do you think that flexibility in organizational design is a fad? Why would a company benefit from transitioning from a matrix or hierarchy organizational model to a flexible one?
6. In the new Internet economy, many companies are facing challenges adapting their marketing materials and strategy for an online platform and leveraging the online environment for competitive advantage. How do 'bricks and mortar' companies benefit from their online presence? Are there limitations or pitfalls?
7. How do companies protect copyrights and sensitive information shared online?

What interested me about the question set was that it appeared to imply that there is a structure (explicit organization chart) for a flexible organization. And I don't believe this is so. Google Images sort of illustrates this point of view. It has a range of structure charts under the heading 'Flexible Organization Structures' which I took to underscore my skepticism that there is no such a thing as a 'flexible' structure and I am dubious about whether one structure is inherently more flexible than another.

Hold the challenge for a moment. Because of course it depends on what we/the questioner means by 'flexible'. I do know that some structures scale up and down more easily than others, and I have a tool on assessing the flexibility of your structure. (See December 2013's tool of the month). But as I thought about this it seemed to me that 'flexibility' is not related to structure – by which I mean easyish depiction as an organization chart. Organizational flexibility is what I would call a 'capability' almost independent of structure and more of an organizational mindset. Think at an individual level – people have roughly the same bodily 'structure' but we can easily describe someone as being 'set in their ways' or 'adaptable'.

I think that flexibility is a characteristic that is achievable within any structure. One of the types of organizations that came to mind was the military. They are stereotyped as command and control, very hierarchical, with a rigid ranking system and yet a military organization can be very flexible. For example, personnel can be rapidly deployed in a disaster, they are instantly responsive to environmental changes in a war zone, etc. I came across a 2012 study that looks at flexibility within the Dutch military which bears out this thinking. It analyzed 'to what extent modular organizing and organizational sensing have contributed to flexible military crisis response performance. … It has uncovered that within most mission contexts, modular organizing acts as a facilitator for the organizational sensing process. Yet, within highly turbulent crisis response missions, organizational sensing becomes the predominant driver, stimulating ad hoc solutions that challenge existing structures, available technology, and standard procedures.'

Pursuing the idea that organizations that demonstrate flexibility have a responsiveness advantage I read an article Organizational Flexibility: A dynamic evaluation of Volberda's theory (2010) that considers 'Volberda's model on organizational flexibility which addresses how the companies should manage their dynamic capabilities and organizational design, in order to achieve the desired fit by being flexible. He studied how the organizations deal with the paradox of flexibility over time, that means, how they continuously adapt to the changes in the environment and balance corporate discipline with entrepreneurial creativity. Exploring the paradoxical nature of flexibility, Volberda (1998) develops a strategic flexibility framework to configure the resources of the firm for effective responses to organizational change providing a comprehensive set of variables and their linear relationships. In addition to this argument, we found that Volberda anticipated the possibility of modelling the adaptation process from a dynamic point of view: "Flexibility is not a static condition, but it is a dynamic process. Time is a very essential factor of organizational flexibility." (Volberda, 1998).'

So organizational flexibility is, by definition, dynamic but within a context. A delightful article Exploring the Empty Spaces of Organizing: How Improvisational Jazz Helps Redescribe Organizational Structure by Mary Jo Hatch (whom I reference frequently in my book Corporate Culture Getting it Right) expands on this 'riff' idea. "This paper uses jazz as a metaphoric vehicle for redescribing (Rorty 1989) the concept of organizational structure in ways that fit within the emerging vocabulary of organization studies." Of course, as with many academic articles I then found that there was Critical Resistance to the Jazz Metaphor with letters flying back and forth so you will need to form your own views on the metaphor. Nevertheless the argument that flexible organizations respond better to rapidly changing business environments was upheld by all parties.

Then I had the conversation. It turned out that it wasn't really to be an academic debate about flexible organizations. The learner is working with an organization that is currently a traditional movie (film) producer which wants to become an online company – more in the Netflix mode. The real flexibility question was whether a well-established traditional media organization can transform its business model more or less completely. I'm in the 'no' camp on this. Traditional newspaper and publishing companies are two examples of traditional businesses that are struggling to be successful online. Bricks and mortar bookshops are getting rarer as people buy books online from companies designed from the start to be online. Read a story here on why Borders books failed. As it reports 'shoppers say they rarely buy books the old-fashioned way. "I'll go to Borders to find a book, and then I'll to go to Amazon to buy it, generally," customer Jennifer Geier says.' It remains to be seen if the troubled Barnes & Noble will survive.

There are numerous reasons why looking to be 'flexible' is not the answer to a traditional media company becoming a competitive online company. The business model and distribution channels are too different, the legal framework is not supportive (around copyright laws, for example), and as Robert Levine noted 'The underlying issue is that creators and distributors now have opposing interests. Companies such as Google and Apple don't care that much about selling media, since they make their money in other ways – on advertising in the first case, and gadgets in the second. Google just wants to help consumers find the song or show they're looking for, whether it's a legal download or not, while Apple has an interest in pushing down the price of music to make its products more useful. And this dynamic doesn't only hurt media conglomerates – it creates problems for independent artists and companies of every size.'

NOTE: Robert Levine is the author of Free Ride: How the Internet is Destroying the Culture Business and How the Culture Business can Fight Back

So the conversation didn't go quite the way I thought it would but the act of thinking about the questions and clarifying my thinking was a good exercise and I hope the graduate student got some ideas he could work with.

What are your views on flexible organizations? Is flexibility a capability or is it a structural form or both/neither? Let me know.