Many organizations seem to be mired in employee disengagement, seemingly at a loss as to how to reignite passion amongst their workers. At the same time, CEOs know they must spark cross-functional, and even cross-organizational collaboration, capturing and leveraging diverse cultural and generational experiences and perspectives in order to maintain their competitive edge and improve productivity. So why is it companies seem to be handcuffed in stasis, unable to break out and innovate in the manner they seek?
Much of the inertia comes from the very structure of the organization itself; its hierarchy. Several years ago I wrote in my book, “How we structure the organization is a reflection of how we perceive function, and once established, how we function is highly influenced by our structure.” Hierarchical structure is ideal for creating economies of scale and wringing out variability of processes (think Six Sigma) in pursuit of quality through standardization. But it comes at a price. Hierarchies also introduce layer upon layer of barriers to communication and cooperation resulting in silos of thought and the defense of symbolic, if only imaginary, turf. Years of downsizing and cost cutting has exacerbated these barriers as associates keep their heads down and dig in their heels with their peers and direct reports.
Hierarchies have been the dominant structure for so long it may seem this form of organization structure is the de facto, natural form of large organizations. This hasn’t always been the case. In fact, a recent discovery of what is quite likely one of the first corporate Org Charts, created by an executive for the New York and Erie Railroad, circa 1855, shows an entirely different perspective. Instead of the top-down pyramid of hierarchical structure, we see a bottom up organization that resembles a tree. The board of directors are represented at the roots and executive management moves up into the trunk while line managers branch out along the various front lines of the railroad. This places leadership at the base and reflects a perspective of senior leadership’s role in nurturing and providing strength for the growth of the corporation, empowering front line management with the authority to make immediate decisions in real-time. This was no small issue when trains ran in two directions on the same tracks. Any miscommunication, in the age of the telegraph, would result in horrific, head-on collisions. Not good for the paying customers or the shareholders, to say the least.
This network empowered the rapid information flow and immediate decision making necessary to safely and efficiently move freight and passengers up and down the line; the very source of the railroad’s value creation. In many ways, it foreshadowed client/server information systems and the internet. It is also very similar to the Strategy Accelerator John Kotter wrote about in the October, 2012 edition of the Harvard Business Review.
Professor Kotter is a pragmatist, with a deep understanding of change management and the seemingly endemic resistance to change most organizations demonstrate (historically, 70% of change management initiatives fail). Realizing one cannot toss out the baby with the bath water, Professor Kotter recommends creating a concurrent, open network to reside alongside the hierarchy. One comprised of volunteers and guided by a coalition of cross-functional leaders. Strategic initiatives are spun out into the network to be acted upon and associates are asked to participate. This not only sidesteps hierarchical barriers, it provides fertile soil for Next Gen leaders to emerge. Leaders that influence and inspire through their ideas and actions. Leaders that can arise from any corner of the organization.
While this initiative is promising (and Kotter has implemented it successfully in several organizations) we saw the need to add infrastructure to the architecture. Our open network partner, Democrasoft®, brings innovative, content collaboration and knowledge sharing technology to this organizational design. It opens up the network for transparent communication, eliminating the dependency on emails for content sharing (knowledge workers spend an average of 81 days per year reading, writing, and searching for information on endless email threads), and capturing tacit knowledge for the support of Big Data and the application of predictive analytics. In effect, it represents both the telegraph wires and railroad tracks of the New Economy. It also enables senior executives to see collaboration in real-time. The structure enables open discussions that tag Great Ideas™ to their initiators, enabling entirely new incentives to be adopted and leveraged to drive desirable, collaborative behaviors. The platform can also reach outside of the brick and mortar to engage customers and ideas from beyond the walls of the organization. All while maintaining the day-to-day efficiencies of the established hierarchy.
Organizations that adopt this innovative, cost effective approach and supporting technology can quickly sidestep the organizational barriers to communication and collaboration while sparking engagement (especially with Gen-X and Gen-Y), authentic inclusion of diverse ideas, and the significant productivity gains necessary to stay competitive in the New Economy. You’re welcome to download a PDF white paper fully exploring this approach: An Integrative Approach to Igniting Sustainable, Competitive Advantage in Our World of Accelerating Change eVersion.
Great Ideas is a trademark of Democrasoft, Inc.
© 2013, Terry Murray.