The Palace: Perspectives on Organization Design

During last week someone alerted me to the report from the IES The Palace: Perspectives on Organization Design. Having read it I now have a bunch of questions which, I guess is the intention of the authors as they specifically state that it is not a 'how to' guide but rather seeks to promote useful conversations among practitioners and line managers. Three of the many questions that came up for me and that I will talk with colleagues about are:

1. Is the language of organization development (OD) and organization design (ODS) hampering our ways of working with the concepts?
2. Are the long-established ramshackle palaces – the metaphor that the report hinges on doomed and we would be doing a better service in demolishing them than trying to redesign/redevelop them?
3. Are the social and analytical technologies we are now embroiled in way beyond our current scope of reference, mental models and toolkits? (And if so, how do we retrain and retool ourselves?)
I'll look briefly at each of them

Is the language of organization development (OD) and organization design (ODS) hampering our ways of working with the concepts?
The report opens with some definitions which position the arguments. The authors consider 'organization design (ODS) as a type of organization development (OD) work which includes a specific focus on structures and/or processes. This, idea is taken up again in section 3.4 but with a slightly different emphasis – here OD and ODS are discussed rather than two distinct strands of work as two sides of a coin that cannot be picked apart. The authors do not mention a new model that illustrates this which I now tend to use. It's from How to Design a Winning Company and shows the eight formal and informal elements of organization design. I think this came out after the report was published otherwise it might have been included.

However, rather than seeing organizations in this bisected way (art and science, formal and informal, opposite sides of a coin) another approach is to see them enmeshed which gives rise to what Alex Pentland, author of Social Physics terms 'social structures'. He asks 'How can we create social structures that are co-operative, productive, and creative'?

Thinking in a different language e.g. of 'social physics' or 'antifragile' (from the Nicolas Taleb book) may, perhaps, start to open a door to radical new ideas of organization as Dee Hock, quoted in the IES report, argued for and long before social media/social organization.

Are the long-established ramshackle palaces – the metaphor that the report hinges on doomed and we would be doing a better service in demolishing them than trying to redesign/redevelop them?
The report opens with the metaphor of a long-established ramshackle palace which is an entertaining read and presents an all too familiar scenario. Each of the chapters 3 – 10 then takes a paragraph from the opening story and develops the chapter from this. It's a good idea in one way but I'm wondering if all the organizations we deal with are ramshackle old palaces? What about start-ups that reach a point of trying to impose some form of order? And where do other organizational forms – for example co-operatives fit into this metaphor?

Hotly following these questions and as I was reading what came to mind were the names of various well-established organizations that have floundered or are floundering. The most recent one – earlier this week was Radio Shack which is about to close 1,100 stores . And an article in today's Huffington Post lists 9 retailers closing the most stores with various reasons given for doing so. I wrote a piece last year on organizational death where I suggested that organizations have a lifecycle and a good death is not necessarily a bad thing. In this vein consider the idea that some palaces are only fit for razing and what we need are people skilled at designing a good organizational deaths. (At the 'birth' end of an organization I was talking to someone recently whose niche is around helping start ups who reach a certain size – around 150 people – develop some organizing principles).

Are the social and analytical technologies we are now embroiled in way beyond our current scope of reference, mental models and toolkits? (And if so, how do we retrain and retool ourselves?)
Reading the report I found several well-used notions (and I use them myself) – for example that for organization re-design setting clear TORs is useful, as is a map, a methodology, and strong project management expertise. But in the context of reading Social Physics and so much else about 'social organization' I wonder if that kind of advice holds true. Pentland points out that 'Suddenly our society has become a combination of humans and technology that has powers and weaknesses different from any we have ever lived in before. Unfortunately we don't really know what to do about it. Our ways of understanding and managing the world were forged in a statelier less connected time. …. In today's light-speed, hyperconnected world, these [statelier times] assumptions are being stretched past the breaking point'.

Thus to read in the report, for example, that early discussion with senior sponsors should include 'where we want to be' seems to be an 'old speak' tool because how can 'where we want to be' be anything more than pie in the sky given the speed of change? But right now I can't offer a more viable 'new speak' tool. Similarly I wonder whether the Goold and Campbell Nine Tests of Organization Design (2002 – pre Twitter) are as valid now as they may have been then, and even PWC's (2009) ten principles against which to evaluate a design seem a little dated.

So a useful practitioner debate may be around what the technology means in terms of organization design. I'm fascinated by the Pentland book but a little alarmed by his enthusiasm for 'the computational theory of behavior, which focuses on the human generative processes', which in his view is 'what is required to build better social systems. Such a theory could tie together mechanisms of social interactions with our newly acquired massive amounts of behavior data in order to engineer better social systems.'

The report has left me with several other questions and I encourage you to read it and see what questions it raises for you. What are your views on the three I have raised here? Let me know.

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