Organisation design:  ownership and positioning

The question that appeared in my inbox this week was, ‘What articles can you point me to that challenge the positioning of org design under HR v COO/Strategy?’

The quick answer is that they are thin on the ground.  A scan of the 92 open access articles in the Journal of Organisation Design has none.  Neither does a search under keyword ‘HR’ of all the journal issues.   Therefore, onwards to DeepDyve and Researchgate

Deepdyve showed 52k results for the keywords ‘organisation design’ which seemed like a long list to trawl through.  I added HR as a keyword and the list reduced to 1,900 becoming much more manageable. But skimming down the list they were mainly about the design of HR functions. 

Researchgate doesn’t tell you how many items are found under the keywords entered (at least I couldn’t see it).  However, numerous pages down, the search yielded Organisation Design & Development and the Relationship with HRM, Reason Chivaka, February 2018. The author doesn’t tackle the positioning issue though.

In the absence of articles (if you know of any let me know), here’s my  take.  

Think of organisation design both as a noun and as a verb.  The organisation design (noun) is, in my view, owned by the CEO/Executive as it is they who are accountable for the effective operation of the organisation.   But they have to accept that they are the ‘owners’ and take an active part in keeping the design optimum.  It requires continuous attention and monitoring. 

According to Tom Peters, “Design should be on the agenda of every meeting in every single department”.  As I say in my forthcoming book, curiously, however, executives rarely talk about it as an everyday issue, and even more rarely reflect on the interactions between the organisational elements and complex social dynamics in order to redesign their business for success.   Peter Senge, in his book The Fifth Discipline, points out why intentional organisation design work is uncommon:

Part of the reason why design is a neglected dimension of leadership: little credit goes to the designer. The functions of design are rarely visible; they take place behind the scenes. The consequences that appear today are the result of work done long in the past, and work today will show its benefits far in the future. Those who aspire to lead out of a desire to control, or gain fame, or simply to be “at the centre of the action” will find little to attract them in the quiet design work of leadership.

Where leaders perceive a need to design or redesign, they tend to delegate that work to designers, consultants or others. In the first instance, this is usually, not HR.

It is the organisational positioning of the people, processes and activities involved in this design work i.e. designing (verb) that my questioner was asking about.

Many functions lay claim to owning the organisation designing work:  enterprise architects, business architects, strategy functions, HR functions and service designers are amongst them.  Each discipline has a legitimate claim to owning it and each often has a methodology to use to work through it.  These competing claims and different frames through which to view the design work can lead to fragmentation of approach across an organisation which can bring less than optimal results.

The fragmentation challenge is greater if external consultants are used, each with their own way of doing design. The organisation will benefit by identifying and communicating one set of OD methods for use by the whole organisation – wherever the designers are from, but the set has to be generated from a genuine and ongoing collaboration between the various parties that feel they own doing the design work. 

Again , in my forthcoming book, I discuss the question of who owns and does the design work, noting that the answer to this is influenced by the assumptions, beliefs and cultures of the organisational members.  

For example, in some organisations the CEO and/or the leadership team crafts the high-level design ‘in a darkened room’ i.e. not involving employees or other stakeholders.  In others, leaders simply mandate a design change without co-creation, rigorous data analysis or insight into how to make their decision work in practice, handing the design and implementation task over to someone else. 

In some cases, consultants are brought in to lead on a developing a design, which is then presented to the CEO/leadership team. While in others the employees fully participate in co-creating a new design.

A 2020 report by Metalogue, surveying the organisation design landscape noted: ‘At one extreme, design was undertaken by the CEO with no consultation with the executive [team]- and at the other, there was wide involvement of a range of internal and external stakeholders. In general, not involving critical stakeholders led to problems at the implementation phase. However, involving too many stakeholders without careful consideration, led to disruption, slowing, or hijacking of the process.’

In day-to-day practice, the question of who carries out the design is a delicate balancing act. Margaret Hagan, who runs the Open Law Lab and is involved in working on how design can improve the justice system, refers to this as tensions between mandate and movement.  Mandate represents top-down directives from a core group, often the CEO and/or leadership team, while movement represents the involvement and participation of stakeholders.

Although HR is often associated with organisation design, and the UK’s CIPD has HR practitioner  competences for organisation design,  the HR function is only one of the players – usually handling only the ‘people’ aspects once a design has been chosen and there are plans to transition to it.  (I’ve frequently heard HR practitioners say they are brought into the design work far too late).   

Organisation designing is far more than designing the people aspects of the organisation.   Designing requires consideration of the work, the people, the formal organisation, and the informal organisation, all in relation to delivering the organisation’s purpose and strategy. 

There are several possible places to position organisation designing (verb):

  • Andrew Sturdy and Nick Wylie,  in a Bristol University policy paper on where to position change activity in an organisation (consider organisation design a change activity)  offer four possibilities around the managerial role, which are worth considering.   
  • Maintaining a multidisciplinary design team, led by the Chief Operating Officer or Strategy Director, works well in some situations.  The people on the team (both internal and external) being selected for the knowledge, skills and expertise related to that specific piece of design work, from a pool of designers.

In each of these possibilities HR is one of the design team but the skills are neither positioned nor (solely) held in the HR function.

 ‘Who owns the organisation design in your organisation?  Who owns the organisation design process?’  Let me know.