“Networks, — social, neural, physical, metaphorical — enable connectedness and connectedness changes everything. Networks compress distances and time, that concentration speeds up life, and that, in turn, creates sociological and economic change”
(“The New Victorian Age”, by Om Malik, Fast Company, May 2015, P. 38.
Try to imagine the result if the human body decided to separate our brain, heart, lungs, intestines, kidneys, nerves etc. into their own independent units — each with its own boss and operating rules — but encouraged them none-the-less to work together for our benefit. Let’s just say a slow deterioration of our health and daily performance would almost certainly ensue. We understand that the human body is an interrelated, interdependent network that functions as an integrated whole, else it not function well at all.
Now look at many of today’s so-called modern organizations. What we often see is bureaucracy not an integrated, interdependent network. We see a vertical structure called hierarchy, a chain of command, an emphasis on authority, obedience and discipline, function specific departments and a penchant for specific job classification, work roles, and specialization. All of this has its roots in the early twentieth century, the age of industrialization and mass production. Much of it derives from the thinking of men like Frederick Taylor, Max Weber and Henry Ford.
But today, as Om Malik points out, we live in the digital age, the age of the microprocessor and the internet, entities that allow virtually a limitless number of networking possibilities. We ourselves are daily networked in ways that would have been unimaginable to most of us even thirty years ago.
Moreover, while our love for these networks may vary by individual, most of us have willingly become dependent upon them because we understand their value in our lives. The network-enabled ability to communicate and collaborate with others in the service of some valued objective has increased the potential for high quality outcomes exponentially, whatever they are.
Yet so many of today’s organization’s find it difficult to see the parallel possibilities for new ways of organizing their daily work via a networking paradigm. Worse, even when members of a workforce have forged working partnerships and alliances that cut across their existing organizational structure, elements of that structure and the managers who control those elements frequently frustrate those collaborative endeavors.
Consider as well the fact that the vast majority of today’s workforce under the age of thirty-five have lived in the digital age most of their lives. They are comfortable with and skilled at networked collaboration and find it difficult to consider doing things any other way. How sad to frustrate their natural collaborative, team-oriented task instincts by throwing bureaucratic obstacles in their way.
I do not write this article to advocate any specific approach or design for a more open, network-based organizational operating environment. There are many possibilities and any approach must fit the purpose, objective, or mission of the organization itself. Rather, I write it to encourage my management readers to think outside the proverbial organizational box on some wiring diagram when considering how best to organize their subordinate’s work.
In essence, I suggest one begins by considering the work itself, specifically the right combination of human talent and skills you believe necessary for getting any definable work objective accomplished. Do not constrain yourself by assuming obstacles that may not exist or that this will never work around here. Ask yourself, who, with what talents and skills, need to work with others with what talents and skills to produce the high quality outcomes you desire? Assemble that collaborative team. Then ask yourself, what resources, technology and support capabilities do I need to invest in this talent to enable their efforts? Acquire and deploy them. You have just created and enabled a COLLABORATIVE, NETWORKED WORKING ENVIRONMENT. Trust that the human talent within it will not let you down.
Such an environment should then be enveloped in THE LEAST OBTRUSIVE ORGANIZATIONAL STRUCTURE. Minimize or avoid if possible hierarchy, strict lines of authority and all forms of functional, job and role specialization. Like the synapses in our brains, networks — and the individuals within them — tend to seek and connect with other networks that are similar, useful, compatible and of value to them. Organizational structure should not unnecessarily frustrate or prohibit these interconnections.
Humans in working networks learn from each other and evolve. Thus networks become a natural talent and skill force multiplier and ideal habitats for innovation and creativity.
Even in the most highly networked working environments there is always the need for some individuals who are ultimately accountable and therefore in charge. Their permission for actions is necessary in certain circumstances. In general, however, the fewer of these “in charge individuals” the better.
True, like any approach to work, a networked based environment will need to be monitored, tweaked and altered from time to time. But the confluence of digital network enablers that foster connectedness and a workforce increasingly at home and more productive in a team oriented, networked environment, make it time that some managers expand their thinking beyond bureaucratic organizing principles more relevant to a bygone age.
There is ample evidence in organizations large and small across the globe that given the combination of sufficient autonomy to determine how they will meet clearly defined objectives and the reality that they will be held accountable for meeting deadlines, quality standards and results, networked workplace teams generally outperform their overly bureaucratic counterparts.