The Org Chart is NOT The Org

Swarm Mechanics
Swarm Mechanics by onkel_wart

I just got back from COINs 2010, and I am mentally more awake as a result of this great conference.

The closing keynote on Saturday night was Richard Buchanan, and though he never used the words, he spoke a lot about the notion of General Semantics.  Buchanan specifically cited a few things that really resonated with other bits and pieces I heard throughout the conference:

“[We’re going to need another word for ‘Design…’] Not a whole lot of other people in the world get it.”

This seemed to imply to me a questionable relative positioning of power because I immediately thought about the words “managers” and “leaders,” and how many managers and “leaders” I’ve met and worked under that couldn’t manage a project and lacked any capacity to lead people.  The word that Buchanan suggests to replace “design” is “entrepreneurship.”

“The problem that animates me is the failure of Organizations… they’re failing us.”

This line really struck me as a tacit agreement with my internal observation above. Buchanan immediately followed this thought with “The greatest invention of the twentieth century is the Organization… without Organizations, the inventions of designers have little impact. Bitter messsage, but it’s the truth.” And this sobering observation led me to one of my own: “The Org Chart is not the Org.”

After three days immersed with academic researchers looking at how collaborative innovation networks work, how to identify them, how to enable them, it hit me that if you accept that an organization is a network, then you can observe organizational behavior like a swarm that emerges from the individuals in the network acting independently.   You can see the organization, the network, for what it is.  Failing that, we look at org charts and we see an organization as it’s “supposed to be.”  This is where we get into trouble.

The notion of an Org Chart was supposed to make clear the reporting structures to bubble alert messages “up the chain” from end employees, localized nodes in the hierarchical network structure.  In trying to make communication channels more explicit, as a matter of expediency and efficiency, the Org Chart (as an artifact onto itself) became a point of fixation that affects organizational behaviors.

Immediately this might invoke a thought that if we destroy the org chart, that this problem goes away — but this only gets replaced with other potential problems: what does the organization look like? Who does anyone person work for?  That may sound great to some on the principle of things… I fear that completely radical positioning is not very helpful.  When things are stable, people are more likely to trust and share.

The key is that our thinking about organizational structure has to change. The “org chart” can’t be static. It probably should be much flatter, or more atomic, than most org charts are. I think that hierarchies allow complex organizations to tackle complex problems (strong ties) in ways that very flat, atomic networks (weak ties) don’t do very efficiently.  The problem with org charts is in their rigidity.  Internal social networking helps to create the hyperjumps through different silos in an organization, but this does nothing to discourage a view from the very top of the organization that organizations can run with one framing (rigid hieararchies) while another framing on the bottom and the middle (flexible groupings) exists.

As the nature of work is changing in organizations and social media and collaboration tools are helping to raise your awareness, are you still required to make 360 evaluations? In your annual performance review, do you still have to explicitly evaluate your performance and collect performance information from others? Collaboration tools and social media tools, when employed, are trust ladders and transparency engines.  The more you participate, share, contribute (pick the word), the more clearly others see you. On projects operated in these channels, everyone knows who’s managing, because they’re the hub of the information. In these channels, everyone knows who the leaders are, because they’re motivating and reinforcing others in the network, and when they introduce ideas, you can look at the swarm activity and see how their words, their actions diffuse.

If you replaced the org chart (a static assumption of what the org should be) with a network analysis chart, you’d have a living, dynamic graph of what your org is, and you can evaluate, with different tools that look for different attributes, what your org is learning, how they’re performing and what new and innovative trends you should be paying attention to. Your Org Chart is one thing; the Wisdom of the Crowds is another thing; What the Swarm Does might be something else entirely.

4 replies on “The Org Chart is NOT The Org”