Organization Design Practitioner Themes

Over the past year I've been facilitating organization design workshops in various countries across the world: UK, Egypt, China, Australia, Romania, Austria, Belgium, Hungary, Sudan, US. These have been connected to different types of projects: developing HR Strategy, introducing organization design methodologies, training HR practitioners in the different role they play as a consultant, changing an organization's culture, and moving staff and operations from one location to another. I've interacted with several hundred people during the course of this work and it has all been a lot of fun.

Towards the end of 2013 someone asked me a question: 'What are the themes that are common to HR practitioners/OD consultants across cultures and organization design projects?' I see six themes across all the countries and cultures where I've been working:

Recognizing that organization design skills are different from HR skills. Most of the people I work with who come on programs to learn how to do organization design work come from an HR background. They are fully aware that they will need new or different skills to do organization design work. Below two people give their reason for wanting to develop specific organization design skills:

'My organization has grown significantly over the last few years and I want to think more effectively about its design, at global, national and functional levels. Having done a lot of work around job design, I also wanted to think about how this relates to organization design.' (Head of Organization Development)

'I have a knowledge and awareness of organization design built through operational implementation. I would like to learn about best practice and also have a robust methodology that I can use as a framework.' (HR Business Partner)

The UK's CIPD publishes an HR Profession Map which can be downloaded free from their website which provides an overview of organization design competences at four different levels related to 'Activities: what you need to do', 'Knowledge: what you need to know' and the behaviors you need to demonstrate in doing the work.

Understanding the relationship of the consultant to the client: As stated, the role of an organization design consultant is very different from the role of an HR practitioner. The client needs to know exactly what role the consultant will take – are they a 'pair of hands', an expert advisor, a process consultant, or perhaps something else? And the HR person has to be clear that being a consultant is not the same as being an HR practitioner. For the most part the role of a consultant in organization design work is as a process consultant. The respective roles of each party during an organization design project are agreed in an initial 'contracting discussion'. HR people are often not comfortable having these initial contracting discussions with the client on the roles each will play in an organization design project. But Peter Block's book, 'Flawless Consulting' tells you how to conduct them. There is also a useful SlideShare that summarizes the contracting discussion. What isn't specifically mentioned in the HR Profession Map, mentioned above, are the consulting activities, knowledge and behaviors needed, but the Institute of Consulting has a management consultancy competence framework (and a business advisor one).

Having the level of business knowledge needed to be credible. I've noted time and again that HR people seem shocked (and sometimes scared) that they have to have the language of the business and real insight into how it operates to have a sensible conversation with their clients. I wrote a blog piece about the importance of this attribute known as Business Savvy Here's a summarized extract from that blog:

Business savvy is about having a deep and comprehensive understanding of the organization. For example it is knowing:

  • Where the funding or the finances comes into the organization.
  • Who the people are who bring in the money and who the people are who support those who bring in the money.
  • What the relationship is between what the employees do and the value that achieves the purpose of the organization.
  • How the organization really works in terms of its processes, its procedures and its systems.
  • The human dynamics – understanding the organizational politics, who is really influential and who is not, who are the noise makers but not necessarily the powerbrokers.
  • What's going on outside the organization, what's the context within which the organization sits.
  • About the customers and understanding their wants and needs.
  • The strengths and preoccupations of the competition.
  • How products and services are developing in the organization's field.
  • The people who are the beneficiaries of the organization and its work.

Knowing when to handover to the client and how to disengage from the assignment. There are question marks in people's minds on the whole point of departure from the project. It's rather difficult if the HR Business Partner is also the OD consultant because the 'walk away' is less clear cut. Being clear about the boundaries of the piece of work and the time to withdraw is essential if the internal consultant is to be able to manage the many conflicting priorities they usually have. Disengaging is much easier and clearer when the contracting process referred to earlier is effective: if the consultant's role and the client's expectations about the outcomes for the piece of work have been clarified the ending and handover should feel both appropriate and timely.

The ideal is that during the course of the project skills such as analysis, diagnosis, synthesis, communication skills, various strategic, managerial and tactical skills, ability to make quicker decisions and to take action have been transferred from consultant to client. At the point of disengagement/handover the client should be left feeling capable of continuing with new design implementation or embedding and not be feeling abandoned by the consultant. Additionally next time when facing similar problems the client should feel capable of handling it without the day to day involvement of a consultant. See an article Evaluating Consulting Projects which asks questions that could form part of the handover principles in the initial contracting discussion.

Evaluating the project at project close out and later in the lifecycle of it (after the consultant has disengaged). Evaluations are an important component by which organizations and consultants learn and develop knowledge. Roffey Park produced a good report on this 'Best Practices in OD Evaluation' (Disclosure – I was interviewed for it) which is worth reading. However, in organization design work there is often little appetite to evaluate the success of the redesign. Clients are reluctant to invite the consultant back 6 months or a year later to see whether the new design is achieving the intended outcomes. Nevertheless evaluation is a sensible thing to do and the report outlines several reasons why:

  • It focuses the project scope and the design work in the context of the business strategy, because it forces answering questions like 'why are we doing this?' 'How will we achieve the return on investment in doing it?' and so on.
  • It defines success in both qualitative and quantitative terms, and ties it closely to achieving business objectives in best cases using measures that feed into the overall organization performance measures
  • It puts the design work in a timeframe and helps the client see what results might be quick wins and what results will take longer to achieve and measure
  • It places accountability for success in the hands of the client/sponsor – which usually means a close eye is paid to progress and quick decisions are made if called for.
  • It fosters sharing of learning on successes and failures in organization design work – a neglected activity where evaluation is lacking.
  • It enables issues to be identified and action taken as needed.

The report rightly points out that sound evaluation is not necessarily easy, but gives some useful ideas on how to approach it as does the article mentioned above 'Evaluating Consulting Projects'.

Encouraging the client to spend time thinking about options and possibilities rather than leaping into a solution. If clients have a problem that needs fixing it is understandable that they will want to get on and deal with it. The issue here is that clients may be not be clear of the value of stopping to think (it saves mistakes, money, time further along in the project), and they may not be clear that the consultant is there to help with the 'think then act' process. Challenging clients can be difficult in some cultures and organizations but it is a skill that consultants need to spend time developing. Framing an initial discussion around the risks of not spending a bit of time looking at the bigger picture before focusing is an approach I have found works. A slightly different approach is to introduce a line manager education and knowledge building program about organization design and development, emphasizing the need to examine the context, consider options, and be ready to change course if the situation changes. Currently organization design theory and practice does not appear in most standard MBA or management development programs which contributes to the lack of manager skill in doing organization design work.

Additionally not many managers are skilled in reflective practice – a useful article on this topic Reflecting on Reflective Practices by Linda Finlay also has an appendix with cue questions to trigger reflection.

So there are the six themes that I have found across the projects and development activity I have worked on this year. How many of these themes ring true to you in the organizational design work you are doing? Let me know.

Toolkits and learning

People often ask me about the tools I use in organization design and development and a while ago I started to collect a list of toolkits that I access or draw on. This week I've stumbled across two that have several tools that I could use in the workshops, focus groups and discussion forums that I facilitate in the course of my work, and I've added them to the list.

The first is the Business Survival Toolkit. For anyone looking for organization design and development tools it's a great source of free, downloadable tools. The second is the Change Management Toolbook with 65 free downloadable tools and three training sessions.

But also this week I've been taking a course on adult education with 'two tracks of knowledge-—in one track, you will learn about the theories within the field of adult education; in the other, you will be learning about yourself.'

The course prompted me to consider that 'Not only are we adult educators, but we are adult learners as well. As Taylor, Marienau, and Fiddler (2000) state, "Development of ourselves as educators mirrors our individual development in that it is always open to revision and reframing" (p. 317). Thus, in order to be open to revision and reframing, we must embark on a journey of self-discovery. We begin by answering such questions as "How do I teach?" and" What are the assumptions I have built my practice on?"

I changed the first question a bit to ask myself 'How do I facilitate' and stuck with the second 'What are the assumptions I have built my practice on.' These led me to ask myself is what is the connection between the tools I choose to use as a facilitator of workshops, discussion forums, focus groups, and so on in the course of my work, and the way this is (or is not) helping the adults I'm working with learn to solve their business problems, look at opportunities, make decisions, take risks and design better organizations. I'm getting round to the view that facilitation is essentially about education and learning.

Years ago I trained to be a teacher and later taught learning theory, and some of this came back to me when, on the course just mentioned, I read a piece about Myles Horton an educator and activist who, according to Stephen Brookfield author of Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher 'believed passionately in two things. Firstly, that education was a process that helped people learn what they do. In other words, help them become aware of the experiences and abilities they already possessed. He also believed that most people knew the answers to the problems besetting them. The problem was they didn't know how to analyze their experience to come up with these answers.'

This paragraph struck a chord with me. I too believe that people know the answers to most organizational issues but don't know how to come up with them. And I believe that part of my role is to help them find the answers and not to give them answers.

I looked in my folder 'Toolkit' to see how far the tools I have in it reflect this belief. And found that for the most part they are enquiry and information gathering tools, and not prescriptive checklists or instructions. So I am in sync with my beliefs on that one but what then struck me about my toolkit ,the toolkits such as those mentioned above and the tools available on sites like Business Balls or mindtools or 12 manage is that they reflect the norms, language and patterns of 'management'. Look at some different toolkits for example Seeds for Change and you'll see tools with the same intent, for example 'holding better meetings', but in a very different style and language. It's possible that the language and style of the tool reinforces aspects of the familiar rather than extends the boundaries of it.

Thus it seems that the tool choices I make: which of them to use, why that choice, and how to use them, has a bearing on what information is captured and what form the explorations take. The tools help frame the conversations. And/or the conversations inform which tools to choose.

What I also noticed about my personal toolkit is that pretty much all the tools I have are word based – there are very few that are visual, graphical, musical, or tactile. One exception is Broken Squares a communication tool that I use intermittently which is great fun and not word based. (You are not allowed to speak whilst using it). Another that I used recently was Orgvue's set of process mapping cards which people had a very good time with.

Now I'm wondering if I'm missing lots of learning opportunities for myself and others by not having tools in a variety of media. I have the book 101 Design Methods by Vijay Kumar that has many tools in it that are visual and interactive and look good but somehow I haven't yet used any of them. Why not?

I'm also wondering whether my method of choosing tools for circumstances should be more conscious and less intuitive. On this basis I started to list out some questions to ask myself when choosing which tools to use:

  • How far should this tool match the participants 'comfort level' (via language, style of activity or instrument) or extend their boundaries? (Assuming I can judge their 'comfort level')
  • How is this tool going to help the participants organize and explore areas of problem/opportunity/common/diverse thinking?
  • How will this tool facilitate the learning of the participants?
  • How will this tool develop different perspectives and demonstrate there is not one right answer?
  • How will this tool help participants find the answer they already know but can't express?

The adult learning course I mentioned earlier states a premise that 'Current research indicates that adults continue to grow intellectually and cognitively; their growth is related to the experiences they face in dealing with problems and situations at work, home, and in community life.'

I believe that part of the responsibility of a consultant/facilitator is to choose the tools and methods that will help participants 'learn what they do' in a way that will help them find answers to 'the problems besetting them'.

How do you choose what tools to use in your organization design work? Let me know.

Taylor, K., Marienau, C., & Fiddler, M. (2000). Developing adult learners: Strategies for teachers and trainers. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Design and form: organizational?

In August this year I got this email:
In this email, I wish to invite you to write a chapter for the 2nd edition of Elsevier's Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences: the new volume on Organizations and Management.

We are pleased to invite you to write a chapter on the topic of "Design and form: Organizational." The chapters are intended to summarize the state of current knowledge on the subject, draw links to other subjects, and explain major directions for developing new knowledge.

The new edition is slated for publication in 2015 and new authors will be requested to submit their chapter within 6 months of accepting the commission. Chapters should be between 3000-5000. You are welcome to invite co-authors if you wish.

Having learned that I must pause and think before accepting things I wrote back:
I think it would be fascinating to write. I'm not sure how you selected me for the invitation but I guess you know that I am not an academic in the sense of having any peer reviewed papers published. I do write fairly practical books for managers trying to steer away from popular hype and magic formula suggestions/approaches. I am a day-to-day consultant in the field and have not yet found the silver bullet for any organizational issue.

What I write would be drawn from the research that I keep up with – neuroscience in business is one such example – but not heavily academic. If that approach is acceptable then I'd be happy to consider doing the work.

The editor did not see fit to withdraw his invitation. In fact he said:
As I explained in my initial invitation, we seek chapters that summarize the state of current knowledge on the subject, draw links to other subjects, and explain major directions for developing new knowledge. This implies familiarity with the academic literature on a subject, plus insights into the issues that will drive future thinking and practice in the field. Your knowledge as an expert practitioner in organizational design would therefore be an advantage.

For your information, I also attach the relevant chapter from the first edition of the encyclopedia. The authors do not wish to revise it, and hence we are seeking a fresh approach. But it does give you an idea of what has been written previously.

I looked at what had been written previously (if you would like this chapter I can send it to you). It's interesting and I learned a fair bit from it. Here's how it opens:
Organization design refers to the formal structures, practices and processes through which organizations seek to accomplish organizational goals. Interest in organizational design stems from two intellectual trajectories (see Bolman and Deal 1997). Industrial analysts such as Frederick Taylor, Henri Fayol, and Lyndall Urwick were interested in using 'scientific management' to design organizations to create maximum efficiency. This work produced an interest in issues such as the specialization of tasks and the nature of hierarchy, authority, and responsibility. A second trajectory emerged through the work of Max Weber who was interested in how, as part of the increasing rationality of society, organizations were being designed according to bureaucratic principles such as impersonal authority, hierarchy, and systematic controls.

It's written from the perspective of what I would call the history or theoretical underpinnings (such as they are) of organization design and there's nothing wrong with that, but as I understand it my task is to develop from this base.

I've been thinking about the piece since then and now that the submission date is approaching it's front of mind. I'm not sure how to tackle it. I'm struggling with many questions related to the three points of the brief which, to recap, are:

  1. Summarize the state of current knowledge on the subject
  2. Draw links to other subjects
  3. Explain major directions for developing new knowledge

Summarize the state of current knowledge on the subject. Well I don't want to get into a philosophical debate on what is 'knowledge', but my questions relate to 'whose knowledge'. People I interact with have very different types of knowledge – line managers, academics, HR practitioners, organization design consultants and now organizational design visualization developers, all have different perspectives on organization design and thus different 'current knowledge'. I've noticed that there are also cultural perspectives that come into play on 'current knowledge'. Mapping the 'current knowledge' could be tricky and take the full word count.

Draw links to other subjects: another minefield as I can't think of a subject area that organization design doesn't link to in some way or other. I did notice that the authors of all the items quoted in the original bibliography were men. And on this observation wondered whether I could write a women's perspective on 'design and form: organizational' with links to women's studies. Out of interest I just checked the editorial team membership of the Journal of Organization Design. There are 27 members of whom 6 are women. So what does this tell me? Not much really because there are also 7 Danish members of the team which could argue for links to the subject of 'Denmark'.

Explain major directions for developing new knowledge: I think this is a more fruitful area for exploration as it's where all the heat around organizational design and the impact of technology and neuro science is. But they are not the only big drivers of new knowledge – the way we think about government, policies, labor migration, nations and cultures, privacy and security, social value, demographics and the environment are among some of the other topics and issues driving new knowledge around the design and form of organizations. But which of these are more or less important than others? I remind myself that I have a word limit and am not writing the entire Encyclopedia. But there could be a jumping off point from Alan Meyer's excellent article Emerging Assumptions About Organization Design, Knowledge And Action in which he states:

'I believe that an amalgam of mutually reinforcing beliefs, theories, and methods honoring the notions of linearity and equilibrium has held back the application of design knowledge, but the field shows signs of switching to a new set of assumptions that embraces non-linearity, self-organization, and emergence (Meyer, Gaba, & Colwell, 2005).

He then discusses three related sets of assumptions, 'focusing respectively on the essence of organization design, the basis of design knowledge, and the nature of action required to enact a particular design.' I really enjoyed the point he makes that 'Academic designers of organizations have, by and large, regarded their products as conceptual models. Organizational practitioners have, by and large, regarded them as metaphysical abstractions' because in the world that I work in that's exactly where the 'whose knowledge' comes into play. Where is the valuable intersection between academic theorizing and practitioner call for action that will develop new jointly-constructed knowledge rather than reinforce suspicions and prejudices?

So, for the moment I'm stuck. My immediate next step is to go and re-read parts of Gareth Morgan's book Images of Organization – his ability to show the different lenses through which organizations can be viewed is fascinating and relevant to students and practitioners of organization design, and might spur me into new ideas. I'm also going to read A Very Short Introduction to History as when I was initially thinking about the commission I was thinking of a history of organization design but then realized that history is interpretation. We can change the history by changing the story. As John Arnold's book describes 'There are many stories we can tell about the past, and we are not, perhaps, as free as we might imagine in our choice of which stories to tell, or where those stories end.' Sampling the field of historiography could yield some useful insights. Although I am committed to setting off writing the piece I'm but not sure yet where I will go with it.

Do you have any views on what you would find useful in a section on Design and Form: Organizational for the 2nd edition of Elsevier's Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences that I'm told 'promises to be the definitive, authoritative, peer-reviewed, electronic encyclopedia for the social and behavioral sciences in the 21st century'? Let me know.

Contracting and process consulting

I'm in Cairo today, Sunday, facilitating an organization design and development public program all day – it's day one of three days and with 23 people from a range of organizations I'm finding it very interesting to get a different cultural slant on the topic. The group members, all predominantly from an HR background have many, many questions about how to do organization design work. One that keeps coming up in various forms and also came up in the two organization design programmes I facilitated last week – so maybe it isn't national culture related but is more organizational culture and perceived value – is about the relationship of the consultant to the client: is the consultant a 'pair of hands', an expert advisor, a process consultant? This is something that in consulting skills terminology can often be sorted out in the initial 'contracting conversations' but consulting skills are not what a more traditionally trained HR person is equipped with. Peter Block, author of Flawless Consulting, a book I recommend on every organization design programme, runs a two day course on the contracting conversation. See a blog piece I wrote on it a couple of years ago.

Introducing it he says:

'As a staff person, our lives are challenged to make our work work for us and our internal clients. In cultures where control and predictability seem to be the order of the day, we realize our great expertise does not guarantee us control or even authority to make decisions or see our plans implemented. So what is left? Collaborative relationships with our clients and internal customers.

Most projects fail not because of the work we do, but because of the weak contracts we agreed to. To deal with this, we must have strong partnerships built through effective contracting from the start. The key is developing the skill and courage to act upon the fact that we have a right to make demands on the people we are there to serve. Courage, based on the power of our honesty and openness in the given situation. Listening intently; knowing what we want, and how to say "no" to what we don't want.'

I haven't done the course but it seems to me point to the thing I've noticed, and heard HR people say that they feel disadvantaged if they are lower in the positional power hierarchy than their client – they don't know how to challenge effectively and don't know enough about deploying influence and credibility. Thus they don't have the skills to have a discussion resulting in an effective contract.

Years and years ago I did an influencing skills course with The Impact Factory and I'm delighted to see that it is still available. I'm assuming that it's as good now as it was then. I still carry around a laminated playing card (the ten of spades) that they gave out on the course. On the back of it is a list of influencing capabilities which I think are brilliant and also plain common sense e.g. 'Adopt a calm, confident style', and their description of influencing as 'about being able to move things forward, without pushing, forcing or telling others what to do.' Is exactly the thing HR people taking on a consultant role need to be able to do.

The way Block stresses the collaborative relationship of clients and consultants and the way the Impact Factory talk about influencing point to organization design work being best conducted using process consulting techniques. In my book Organization Design: Engaging with Change (Chapter 2) I discuss this process consulting approach which was originally defined by Edgar Schein as basically a 'helping model'. He shows what that means by contrasting it with two other forms of helping models 'that seem to me substantively quite different': providing expert information, and playing doctor.

Providing expert information: this he suggests is giving information that is directly relevant to a client's problem.
Playing doctor: when a client asks a consultant to come and assess a situation, find out what is wrong, and suggest a cure, the consultant is in the role of 'playing doctor'.
Process consulting: Schein discusses this in terms of helping people who know something is awry but are not sure what or why. Once they have been helped work out what is wrong then they are usually in a position to fix whatever it is themselves (i.e. they don't need an expert). This means that the consultant has to suspend judgment on what the issue is, and/or how to fix it, and with the client develop an inquiry process where together they find out what is going on and what to do about it.

Schein sees this as a robust way of involving the client, ensuring that he/she takes responsibility for the issues, and feels a sense of ownership of the outcome and commitment to it. In my experience, knowing the roles and activities of client and consultant and the general orientation of process consulting as a 'helping' approach is not enough. Both client and consultant have to hold the basic assumptions on which process consulting is predicated:

  • The consultant and the client act as equals. The client provides the knowledge of the organization's nature, business, and issues; and the consultant provides the knowledge of the techniques, ways of thinking, and practices that can solve the problem.
  • The client owns the problem and determines the solution. The consultant helps the client to see the issues and find what needs to be done. By not imposing a point of view, the process consultant ensures that a real solution, not an attractive, trendy or unstable fix, is obtained.
  • The consultant operates from a position that two-way learning and collaborative problem solving will skill the client to continue to deal with the situation.
  • The sharing of problem and opportunity identification and action planning/implementation leads to shared vision. The expert consultant may have a toolkit of best practice methods, but the process consultant will ensure that the tools which are employed will best fit the organization's needs and interests. (21st Century Process Consultation, 2001)

These assumptions can clash with some of the realities of organizational life – that trust is often at a premium, and consultants – particularly if they come from HR – are often hierarchically junior to the client and have no real power base from which to approach the relationship as an equal. The consultant in this position has to build trust and trade on influence and credibility to make the relationship successful.
As Schein points out – in practice consultants are usually moving from one of these three helping models to another as the intervention proceeds.

So armed with skills to have an effective contracting conversation, the ability to influence and knowledge of process consulting you have the foundation for a good consulting relationship with your client. Do you have these attributes? Are they valuable? Let me know.

Schein, E. (1990, April 15). A General Philosophy of Helping: Process Consultation. MIT Sloan Management Review, 57-64.

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.

Who owns an organization’s design?

This is an extract from Chapter 2 of my new book Organization Design: Engaging with Change, published last week (November 21 2013). To find out more about the book and order a copy here.

When people are trying to decide the 'best' structure for their organization they often forget that work has to flow through it, and that different structures have different attributes. For example, that adaptability is poor in a traditional hierarchy but good in a network. Instead structure decisions are often made based on personalities, politics, and expediency. This is a mistake on two counts. First, failing to explicitly recognize that structure choices impact organizational capabilities, and second that getting work done efficiently in order to meet organizational goals is, or should be, the purpose of the organizing frameworks and structures.

The possibilities that technology now offers for charting the way work actually gets done in organizations and the advent of new business models raises some questions about who 'owns' the design of the organization and where should the 'owner' reside in the organization.

Identifying who owns the design is not always clear cut. Consider the business model of LiveOps, established in 2000. It deploys cloud computing to virtualize its business services. It is a cloud-based call centre service that manages a network of more than 20,000 independent at-home agents. Companies use the service on a pay-as-you-go model, either as a fully outsourced call center or to augment their own. The technology enables an on-demand, scalable service to subscribers. The relationship of the stakeholders – LiveOps, the independent agents, and the companies buying the services of the agents via Live Ops is not easily depicted in a standard chart.

Nevertheless the three parties together form an organization that delivers a service to a customer. In this instance who 'owns' the whole system design of LiveOps? Is it the CEO or leadership team, or the self-employed agents, or the purchasers of the services who, by nature of their requirements, have an implicit voice in the design of the organization, or others who are not so obvious like regulators, or possibly unions, or even more possibilities beyond these? Notice that so far none of the possible owners mentioned includes HR – a function which often sees itself as the guardian of organization design.

Listening to LiveOps founder and CEO, Marty Beard, speak it is obvious that the design of the organization is something he constantly thinks about. He is making continuous decisions of whether, in his words, to 'pivot or persevere'. As it says on the LiveOps website "He is responsible for all strategic and operational aspects of the company." He is using his sophisticated technology to keep a constant eye on operations, and specifically the at-home agents.

Beard says "I have this real time flow [of information] so that every day I can see what they're working on, what they're impacted by , what challenges they face. That's just input for me to figure out what products do I need to make, what changes do I need to make, what patterns am I seeing, where do I need to change my focus to provide better service?"

The LiveOps SVP of Human Resources, Norma Jean Lane, "manages the planning, direction and implementation of all human resources programs and policies and participates in the overall executive management of the company. Her team serves all LiveOps employees in the areas of human resource services, compensation, benefits, organizational development, training, EEO compliance, recruiting, staffing, and all other aspects of human capital management."

In this example you see a current trend. That the overall 'design' of it is 'owned' by the business people, as a part of a business strategy, and the 'development' of it is 'owned' by the HR team. But these are not independent but integrated pathways. There is a business strategy that can only be delivered with the support of a corresponding HR strategy. Here is what one HR manager said on the topic:

'Our business leaders are currently designing a Target Operating Model and a 5 year plan which will look at business development in emerging and existing markets. Therefore I see my [HR Manager] role as instrumental in being able to plan the 'future-state' including assess skills requirements, analyzing labour markets, and developing a future plan talent acquisition planning/internal mobility or other interventions for resource such as outsourcing and other flexible workforce solutions. I also aim to look at centres of competence for key skills in e-commerce and this could be on an international basis as my company has international span/growth plans. Thus my role is strategic in terms of the business strategy as I have to integrate the HR strategy with it.'

Although 'organization design' is often seen as vested in HR, and certainly required as an HR competence – it figures on the CIPDs HR Profession Map – a new design is typically initiated and driven by the business. HR, with its focus being primarily on the workforce, is only one of the parties that enable new organization design success. Other support service areas, among them IT, finance, facilities, and communications are also typically tagged as enablers of new design success, and often work alongside the business and HR in planning and implementing a (re)design piece of work.

Take a look at this extract from a request for proposal (RFP) from a telecoms company.

Over recent years, Telco has undergone significant change, much of which is the result of influences of the external environment. This change has taken many forms: merger activity, entry into new markets, new channels, a new CEO, an emerging strategy, etc. During this period of change the overarching structures, roles, policies and processes, etc. have remained largely unchanged.

The CEO and his leadership team are now commissioning a review of the current organisational design. The outcome of this will be a) an assessment of the current design's capability to achieve the new strategic priorities b) if it is found to be not capable, recommendations for achieving a more coherent and effective design that will deliver Telco's vision and strategy. The aim of this piece of work therefore is to ascertain whether the current organization design is robust enough to meet future demands including emerging strategy, external market pressures, employee engagement, etc.

In particular, the review should aim to answer the following questions:

1) To what extent does Teleco's current form support our stated purposes and vision?
2) What has changed over recent years (either internally or externally) that must now be attended to in terms of the overall design of the organisation?
3) What are the recommendations in determining next steps in achieving greater coherence and alignment (dependent upon findings)?
4) How can organizational agility be maintained in the light of on-going organization-development activity?

This RFP was initiated by the business leaders. In consulting terms the key business owner of the project is the 'client'. Now think about who might respond to the RFP: if it were external consultants what field of expertise would they demonstrate to qualify them: HR, business strategy, operations, organization development, change management, business analytics, or finance? If it were an internal request who would it flow to? It is not obvious that respondents would (or should) come from HR. In this RFP the only qualifier is that respondents should provide evidence of "Experience in this field and references of work previously carried out that are similar in nature to the proposal." ….

The discussion on this topic continues in Chapter Two of the book.

Who do you think is the owner of an organization's design and who in what functional or expertise area would be qualified to advise on the design? Let me know.


'They're building a wall
Between water and land
So we can eat fruit
And they can eat sand'

I stayed a few nights at a hotel the other week that bills itself as 'Eco friendly, stylish and cozy, carefully designed by professional designers, creates a unique chill-out ambience to make you feel happy and relaxed. Set right on the unspoiled white sandy beach, lined with palm trees and washed by the warm, turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean, it's a perfect gateway from every-day life.' What I experienced was all of that and it was glorious.

And then I remarked on the fact that a high stone wall surrounded the hotel. From my room I could see clearly the hotel side of the wall – beautifully tended gardens with watered bougainvillea, electric night lighting along the paths, and carefully positioned pieces of sculpture.

I could also see on the other side of the wall arid scrubland, a well-populated village with no sanitation, no electricity, a single well for all the villagers, and a ramshackle collection of small mud and thatch one-room dwellings. 88% of that country's population lives on less than $2 USD per day. My breakfast (with fruit) was $7 USD. I felt uneasy with my privilege.

When I voiced the wall and the privilege thought the person I was with told me of the David Rovics song that there's an extract from at the top of this piece. I listened to it. It's desperately sad and set me wondering about walls and how they exist literally and figuratively. How do I feel about eating a $7 breakfast and staying in an eco-friendly hotel secluded behind a high wall? Is the wall to keep me in or other people out, or both? Is it – as some would argue –providing work for the local population and taking them out of poverty, or is it taking the few resources they have access to (e.g. water) so they have less? I did find out that about 200 villagers helped construct the hotel and I asked what they were doing for work now. The owner shrugged.

Having recognized one wall I have been seeing them everywhere – on my return trip I went through a security line to get into the airport including having my fingerprints taken, a security line to get into the airside area, a security line to get onto the flight. I landed at the stopover point and went through a security line to get into that airport (even though I had just got off a flight where I'd been screened three times in order to get on it). Each time I showed my passport. In changing flights I showed my passport again. Arriving home I went through passport control. Like many people the security lines infuriate me, yet I am lucky in that I have freedom of movement and can pass through the walls of national borders. What about those who can't? Should I be supporting the no border network? Is freedom of movement a right/entitlement or another privilege? On this see Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that:

  • Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.
  • Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

On the longest – 9 hour leg of the journey – I was upgraded to business class from economy which was lovely, and unasked for – but I happened to be traveling on the day the article The Extra Legroom Society about tiers of service for travelers appeared in the newspaper I was given to read on the plane. (Newspapers are not given to people in economy class). In my 'walls' frame of mind I read it as piece about those who are able to scale the walls of privilege. As the author says, 'the places and ways in which Americans are economically segregated and stratified have multiplied, with microclimates of exclusivity popping up everywhere. The plane mirrors the sports arena, the theater, the gym. Is it any wonder that class tensions simmer?'
There was no let up on this trip of walls of one type and another. Another piece that caught my eye was the new Robert Reich film Inequality for All about income inequality in the US. One reviewer said: 'you can be left aghast at the jaw-dropping statistics, such … the fact that the U.S. ranks a lowly 64th on the inequality scale among the world's nations-—only slightly better than the Ivory Coast and Cameroon. Or Reich's revelation that our richest 400 residents have more wealth than half the U.S. population – 313.9 million (2012) – combined. '

Also on that flight, in shades of the hotel experience, I read about gated communities in Buenos Aires 'Residents of the Mayling Country Club, a gated community on the outskirts of Buenos Aires that boasts tennis courts, a polo field and a private restaurant often carp about the Pinazo river, which runs through four holes of their verdant 18-hole golf course. If one doesn't aim carefully, the river, which is flanked by weeping willows and navigated by ducks, swallows all the balls launched its way.

A few miles downstream, residents of Pinazo, an informal settlement that has sprung up along the riverbank, have very different complaints. During heavy rains the river overflows, inundating their makeshift aluminium-and-brick homes with sewage. … Less than half of homes have sewerage and a quarter lack access to piped water. A third have no gas; almost as many stand on unpaved streets. But amid this poverty, islands of luxury are popping up.'

So where is all this wall stuff going? It is leaving me wondering:

  • What do walls as defensive barriers say about the wall-builders – are they fearful, defensive, paranoid or sensibly protecting themselves (or something else)? For a discussion on these lines watch the film The Iron Wall).
  • What is the responsibility of us organization designers to tear down, scale, or build walls – is it ok for example for us to be designing work spaces by position in hierarchy, barriers to building entry, surveillance systems of various types, grading systems, promotion routes and massive salary differentials (see Redefining the Minimum Wage)? Or should we have a code of ethics (we don't currently) close to the humanistic values I talk about in my blog piece Organization Development Values.

I think we should be alert to walls (barriers, etc.) that we may be creating. They should not compromise fairness, equity or well-being. In this week of walls also appeared in my email an HBR blog discussing a survey of 15 factors of employee workspace satisfaction which found, 'Workers in cubicles with high partitions were the most miserable, reporting the lowest rates of satisfaction in 13 out of those 15 factors.' So if this statement is universally accurate let's not design high cubicle walls.

Then I came across a piece in Fast Company Against the Tide on partnering with nature on water flow to protect the land. In this article Tracy Metz, author of Sweet & Salt: Water and the Dutch, 'learned that the dream of Holland as watertight fortress–canals are moats, straighter rivers are safer rivers, higher walls are better walls- is compelling but flawed.'

I like the notion that higher walls are not better walls, and mentioned this to someone who told me about the SwedishVittra Schools, described in Fast CoDesign: 'Sweden loves its experimental education, but here's a venture that's far-fetched even by Swedish standards: It's a school without walls.

That's right. Vittra Telefonplan, in Stockholm, was designed according to the principles of the Swedish Free School Organization Vittra, an educational consortium that doesn't believe in classrooms or classes. So instead of endless rows of desks, it's got neon-green "sitting islands" and whimsical picnic tables, where students and teachers gather. Instead of study hall, it has "Lunch Club," a smattering of cafeteria-style tables on a checkerboard floor for working or eating (or both). '

So although I was able to find some breaking down of walls, overall I'm left this week with the feeling that generally we build more of them – literally and figuratively – than we take down. I'm developing a stronger belief that organization designers should not design in walls and barriers but rather look for ways of encouraging equity, accessibility and fairness. What's your view? Let me know.