The way in which companies organize themselves and define their internal boundaries has essentially been determined by the way in which communication between people is planned and transfer of information is designed. The classic hierarchical structure was based on the assumption that a manager or worker could have rich interaction and exchange of information only with a limited number of predetermined people. A narrowing of interaction always marked operational boundaries. Thus you did not want people to cross functional silos. This was the infamous trade-off between richness and reach.

An increasing number of companies trying to become social businesses are now becoming aware of the technical barriers and structural bottlenecks that hinder or totally prevent cooperation that is not planned in advance.

It is time to rethink. Rather than thinking of organization as an imposed structure, plan or design, organization arises from the interactions of interdependent individuals who need to come together.

The accumulating failures of attempts at organizational agility can be traced to the fundamental but mistaken assumption that organizations are structures that guide and, as a consequence, limit interaction. An organization as a structure is a seventeenth century notion from a time when philosophers began to describe the universe as a giant piece of clockwork. Our beliefs in prediction and organizational design originate from these same ideas.

A different ideal is emerging today. We want to be agile and resilient and we want to learn effectively and fast. The tension of our time is that we want our firms to be flexible and creative but we only know how to treat them as systems of boxes (or network nodes, where the shapes are round instead of square), with a fixed number of lines between them.

It is time to change the way we think about organizations. It is not about hierarchies vs. networks, but about a much deeper change. Organizations are creative, responsive processes and emergent patterns in time. All creative, responsive processes have the capacity to constantly self-organize and re-organize all the time. Change is not a problem or anomaly. Change is the organizing input rather than the typical managerial re-design process.  All solutions are always temporary.

Gregory Bateson wrote: “information is a difference which makes a difference”. Information is the energy of organizing. When information is transparent to everybody, people can organize effectively around changes and differences, around customers, new technologies and competitors.

What we have still not understood is that people need to have access to information that no one could predict they would want to know. Even they themselves did not know they needed it – before they needed it. Thus an organization can never be fully planned in advance. When information is transparent, different people see different things and new interdependencies are created, thus changing the organization. The context matters more than ever. The easier the access that people have to one another and to (different) information is, the more possibilities there are.

We seek organization, but organization is a continuous process, not a structure.

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Thank you Ken Gergen for a great evening and great conversations

More on Gregory Bateson. On social business. Narrative work.

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