This paper focuses on the potential between emerging network sciences, practices, organizational design challenges. Further, I make predictions about how the merger of the latter two approaches may produce adequate responses to the challenges above.

Organizations, you have failed

With fundamentally disrupted market and politics, disruptive technologies and new workforce models, there is a growing consensus that the organizations – as we used to know them – fail to stand the test of the times to come.  This is well recognized by the global elite discussing Responsible and Responsive leadership these days. I shall argue that you need responsible and responsive organizations also able to follow leaders.

One study argues that it is less the leadership, but rather the organizational aspect which is missing – few organizations are agile and controlled enough to navigate in turbulent times. This makes changes in organizational design principles and practices inevitable.

There is widespread agreement among practitioners concerning formal organizational structures are increasingly less relevant in describing how organizations really work.

Shall we keep or lose control?

Some try to push back on this, trying to force people to “‘behave” as they are expected based on the formal structures. They may use technology to set error proof procedures, making sure things go by the book. If conflict emerges, they try to discourage deviants in the name of control. In fact, some see this school useless. But wait a second. Risk management, compliance and other expectations signal that control is not completely a bad thing – just make sure they do not limit agility and innovation. We might call this Org Controls school, with academic roots such as Taylor or…

Do you have green thumbs? Let’s garden then!

I am tempted to use a gardening analogy. This is the equivalent of formal, classic French gardens, where structure and order rules, which forces even Nature into those forms.

But this approach above is not the mainstream, in fact it is very scarce. The clear majority of organizations silently accept the fact that multiple “organizations” co-exist: there is one for budgeting, one for social matters, one for innovations, or processes, initiatives and projects. These networks are often invisible, but you need to master them to navigate your organization. With this silent recognition comes the practice that management strives to remove barriers – that is, to ease or remove the formal organizational silos and limitations via policies or other means. They do recognize that social context, people relations and networks are the right organizational infrastructure.

Does creative chaos exist?

We may call this the Context School because the focus in on creating the right environment. However, note that this is the sharp antithesis of the Control School – it offers no oversight or influence over the direction. One might argue this is a creative chaos, out of which great innovation emerges. Or not, and they suffer the consequences and may go out of business. This is the nature of competition. Continuing our garden landscaping analogy, most English gardens followed original landscape structures, with improvements and care. If you want water flow, check out where natural streams flow and make them look better, regulating them if need be. And this concept works, if you leave enough time. Most gorgeous English gardens are few hundred years old.

And this is the issue.  Things can indeed turn out to be nice and adequate in the end, but you might be out of business by then. Organizations under market, technology and societal pressures do not have the luxury to wait. It has got to be right, but right now. 

Networks School – the third wave of organizational design

Is there a way to enjoy the benefits of a context based approach, but accelerated?

The third, emerging wave of organizational design approach could be a kind of a synthesis. I call it Networks School. Yes, map out carefully where the natural flows of information, relationships and energy (and power) can be found in an organization. But it is no longer enough to just remove barriers and silos. One needs to purposefully nurture the growth of networks, relationships and trust in critical places. And we tend to know where this critical places of business is. Iinnovation is one of the usual suspects; the client relationship is another; and we can name sector or organization specific hotspots. If not, there are trusted techniques to determine these by using operations data for pain-points, customer feedback, competitive benchmarks or others.

Four critical behaviors for organizational agility

Many organizations are rather advanced to define desired behaviors. There are four basic behaviors which I view as critical: ask questions when in doubt, provide guidance if you can, work together to create new insights (if no answers are there) and provide feedback on the three above. None of these behaviors are individual: all are based on the interaction among communities. I am not arguing that no individual skill matter. They do. But what makes the difference between success and failure is the quality of the network. I could bring in competitive sports examples or technology architecture principles, but the one I can not resist is neuroscience: focus not on the cells in the brain but the synapses! Visualize, measure and build networks. Make them work in mission critical places. Yes, you can leave it to Mother Nature and evolution.

Unless you don’t want to leave it to Mother Nature

But here is a better approach I suggest:

  • Map and visualize networks, focusing on issues like trust, expertise and responsiveness. Simple logic could be to ask whom they turn to for advice or similar mapping ones such as all researched and tested by ONA (Organizational Network Analytics) science.
  • At the same time, define what behaviors you would like to see happening among which teams or communities (not individuals). Make assumptions about the ”to-be” state of your team networks.
  • Comparing the ”as-is” and ”to-be” maps will give you points where desired things are happening. God bless them, nurture these relationships with enablers, like structures, processes, policies, technologies etc.
  • You will find areas where teams are not linked up in the right way. Maybe it is simply not enough communication; maybe it is not on the right issues or in the right tone of collaboration. I argue that here you need to intervene, much the same way as a good gardener does. How? You may again create more idea circumstances with enablers. That is too slow, I fear again.
  • You might well need something more focused. And here I would go back to individuals. If relations between teams or communities do not work well, you need to find the rainmakers. Or get rid of the zingers. ONA can give you specifics on which individuals might have the necessary trust capital, or expertise or both, to improve intra-team relations. One this blooms, you are back on square 3, providing the right context to already well functioning networks.

Better to start gardening!

All in all, I argue that the key for more responsible and responsive organizations is promoting actively the right intra-team behaviors. There are many ways to skin a cat, but advance organizational change management software solutions can make invisible networks visible and yes, manageable with smart controls and targeted accelerations. Garden landscaping history teaches us that a golden middle way may exist between the controlled and laissez-faire approaches which brings us organic, beautiful outcomes in the competitive context of the 21st century.