What will the company of the future look like? Well I am not asking whether it will be a universal skyscraper just across a galactic avenue from the space station, or perhaps a bunker at the bottom of the sea bed, just a couple of sandy streets away from the titanic. I am more interested in what it will look like organisationally. Will it be a Henry Ford production line of open plan cubicles with people almost unable to disconnect from their computers, skyping their families at midnight to share a scheduled conversation, just before the next day begins? Or will it be a bunch of beatniks sitting around in beanbags, munching on donuts and coffee, having creative brainstorms – but only when they feel so inclined of course.
Over the last few weeks I have been working my way through a MOOC. What’s a MOOC you may well ask, because I certainly did? It’s a Massive Open Online Course. But don’t be put off by the unsophisticated description. The MOOC I have been doing, Managing the Company of the Future, was through the University of London and was excellent, so I wanted to share my take on some of what I learned and what this means to what the company of the future may look like.
If you read my article last week you’ll recall I talked about Emergent leaders, well this week I want to talk about the shift from a Bureaucratic organisation to an Emergent Organisation. At 50, I like the idea of still being able to emerge. It feels like there is always a chance for a new lease of life.
“Emergence is the spontaneous coordination of activities achieved through the self –interested behaviours of independent actors” (Birkinshaw, J)
So amongst many aspects of the organisational shift that we are witnessing, in what we call a modern organisation, is this shift from a bureaucratic to an emergent organisation. And it’s this shift I wish to focus on in this post. So here goes –
Bureaucracy versus Emergence
A bureaucratic organisation is an organisation that is bound by policies, processes and procedures, often described as red tape. Bureaucracy is an old-fashioned organisational style, however it remains very relevant to certain industries, for example, our police departments. It’s nice to know that there are some policies and procedures governing the way in which our laws are administered. And any industry where there is a degree of risk of some nature, is often bound by bureaucracy. Engineering is another good example. It’s good to know that there are some standards that govern the way in which we construct infrastructure, buildings, bridges etc. Or perhaps the pharmaceutical industry where the outputs can be a matter of life or death – let’s have a couple of policies for that industry I think. The issue with bureaucracy is when it begins to stifle an organisation. When one productive action requires three corresponding bureaucratic actions, an organisation may find its ability to improve performance, grow and develop significantly hampered and potentially can find itself grinding to a halt. However, bureaucratic organisations can produce consistent quality in accordance with stringent parameters and with the ability to accurately forecast the results. If there is a lot of risk, this is not a bad place to be. There is still lots of room for bureaucracy in our modern frontier.
Swing the pendulum and you’ll find yourself in an emergent organisation. In an emergent organisation employees are encouraged to self- govern their own activities. They are encouraged to set their own agenda based on what they believe adds the most value both to them personally and to the organisation. In some of these organisations, management is almost non-existent and might be referred to as coordination. In some of these organisations, project teams and team leaders are self nominated. Want to be the boss? Then put up your hand, and give it a go. People may be encouraged to choose to move about from project to project as a project becomes more exciting, relevant to the company, or relevant to them personally. Examples of companies that swing more to the emergent side, include Google, Facebook, and the very famous Semco, the brainchild of Ricardo Semler. Ricardo Semler authored the book Maverick! : The Success Story Behind the World’s Most Unusual Workplace. He is a couple of examples from this unusual but successful workplace.
“Working Hours: The responsibility for setting working hours and fulfilling the requirements depends on each employee, as Semco does its best to adapt the working hours to each person’s preferences.” Maverick
“Reverse Evaluation: Anybody who is hired or promoted must be interviewed, evaluated and promoted by all the people who will work for him.” Maverick
Back to the basics of highly complex organisational structures with no organisation
“When a crowd comes together without direction some natural order emerges.”
So says Julian Birkinshaw, Reinventing Management, Jossey Bass 2012
This is perhaps the most critical aspect of the success of an emergent organisation, this natural order. We see examples of this natural order at work in nature in bee hives and termite mounds, where massive populations of individuals come together with no discernible hierarchical structures, and yet achieve incredible results as an organisation. Teetering on the brink of chaos, can Emergence really be the secret to success and the pathway to the future?
The transition to the company of the future
I might argue that it makes perfect sense to focus organisational models at a departmental level as opposed to an entire organisation. For example, the emergent organisational model is well-suited to the research and development department where creativity and innovation must be encouraged and allowed to boldly go where no other bureaucrat has ever gone before. Having said that, I acknowledge the need to carefully control research to ensure confidence in outputs, so we are going to need a little of that stifling bureaucracy.
And in the end…..
My best guess is we’re not all going to be lucky enough to do a couple of hours a day on the foosball table and in the meditation pod and that some of us will still have a few tough rules and a bit of structure to follow. I believe the company of the future will be diverse in its organisational models. That at some point we won’t try and cast one organisational blanket over the entire organisation and that we will accept that our Finance Department may have a bureaucratic model versus our New Products and Services Department which will be right out there in the blue sky. And in the end…. That will be just fine.
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Many thanks to James Westmore for his wonderful artwork