The agile organization
The management approach to getting something done is to create an organization. If something new and different needs to be done, a new and different kind of organizational form needs to be put into effect. Changing the lines of accountability and reporting is the epitome of change in firms. When a new manager enters the picture, the organizational outline is very often changed into a “new” organization. But does changing the organization really change what is done? Does the change actually change anything?
An organization is metaphorically a picture of walls defining who is inside and who is outside a particular box. Who is included and who is excluded. Who we are and who they are. This way of thinking was fine in repetitive work where it was relatively easy to define what needed to be done and by whom as a definition of the quantity of labour and quality of capabilities. As a result, communication design created two things: the process chart and reporting lines.
In creative, knowledge based work it is increasingly difficult to know the best mix of capabilities and tasks in advance. In many firms reporting routines are the least important part of communication. Much more flexibility than the process maps allow is needed. Interdependence between peers involves, almost by default, crossing boundaries. The walls seem to be in the wrong position or in the way making work harder to do. What then is the use of the organizational theatre when it is literally impossible to define the “organization” before we actually do something?
What if the organization really should be an ongoing process of emergent self-organizing? Instead of thinking about the organization let’s think about organizing. If we take this view we don’t think about walls but we think about what we do and how groups are formed around what is actually going on or what should be going on. The role of management is then to define tasks and outcomes but not to say who does what. The new task for managers is to make possible a very easy and very fast emergent formation of groups and to make it as easy as possible for the best contributions from the whole network to find the applicable tasks, without knowing beforehand who knows.
The focal point in organizing is not the organizational entity one belongs to, or the manager one reports to, but the reason that brings people together. What activities and tasks unite us? What is the cause for interdependence and group formation? My friend Jyri Engeström calls this a social object. My understanding of “social object” as an idea is more derived from the work of George Herbert Mead and my friend and mentor Doug Griffin. Because of this different background, a social object, in my vocabulary, is more often called a context or even an attractor. Although the word attractor has a different and very specific meaning in the sciences of complexity, I like the picture of an organization without walls, rather like magnetic fields defined by gradually fading rings of attraction.
These contexts create transparent, permeable boundaries between them, not walls. Instead of the topology or organizational boxes that are often the visual representation of work, the architecture of work is a live social graph of interdependence and accountability. Our thinking about organizations is very much based on the old expensive and low-quality communication. The reality today is very different. Communication as the key driver in organizing is both high-quality and cheap. One of the biggest promises of social media is easy and efficient group formation! It is just our thinking that is in the way of bringing down the walls.