Some of the most interesting conversations I’ve had in the past few months have been about organisational change and the impact of social networks on traditional hierarchical management models. A recent blog by Optimity captured a lot of this thinking - a key quote is
“As the pace of change continues to accelerate, it is unrealistic to believe that a century-old management model will somehow endure while the rest of the world is reshaped by the technologies of the digital age.”
My take on this view is that the digital generation expects to be able to be part of many communities at once, and be holding several simultaneous conversations with each of them. Sometimes the conversations will inform each other, sometimes they won’t be relevant to each other at all. Some interchanges will be slow burning, some will rush to a conclusion. Communities will likewise be long-lasting and ephemeral in equal measure. This is how ‘digital natives’ communicate, and it’s radically different to the 20th century model.
A 21st century organisation must embrace and exploit this, or it will fail. A good example of a very traditional organisation adapting to meet a new challenge of this sort is the United States military - maybe the most clear example of a strict hierarchy you’d hope to find. They took on the task of fighting Al Qaeda in Iraq after the invasion in 2003 and set about it in their usual way. They began to map the enemy with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi at the head, and various lieutenants and soldiers beneath him. It became clear pretty quickly that this was flawed - previous enemy forces had been organised in this way, but Iraq’s lieutenant’s weren’t waiting for memos from their superiors.
Al Qaeda in Iraq was using technology to transfer money, information and propaganda faster than the US Army could follow it, their enemy was not organised by rank, but by reputation, relationships and fame. The enemy could grow and sustain losses with impressive ease - it was a well-functioning network.
General Stanley McChrystal coined a phrase ‘it takes a network to fight a network’ - and set about changing the structure of the US forces to be able to react to the way Al Qaeda was operating. Information was shared far more widely than before, barriers of rank were broken down and individual units given more responsibility to respond to this information. This was so successful that the tactics were quickly adopted in Afghanistan where the same problems haunted the allied forces.
In business organisations there are similar challenges, where traditional layered hierarchies stifle communication and collaboration. I will quote Jon Husband from the Wirearchy blog -
‘today it’s very likely that in your organization people are interconnected and are using their exchanges with each other and their participation in information flows to get work done and achieve objectives. The organization’s people are already operating using knowledge, trust, credibility and a focus on achieving results .. ‘
The question is posed, how well has the organisation adapted its leadership, management practices and organizational culture to be flexible and adept enough to take advantage of these real possibilities for improvement and/or innovation?
Can we learn from people like McChrystal, and adapt our organisation to the changing world, or are we so sure of the 20th century business model that we will cling to it, come what may? I know where I’m putting my money!