Friday, 28 February 2014

Experiments in organisation and the implications for management

There have been a number of articles and blogs published recently discussing the implications for management and management structures in the internet age. Here are a couple of links that I've been following:

Do we still need managers from the HR Zone blog that talks about the potential implications for management of the announcement by Zappos, the US online retailer, to abolish its reporting hierarchy and job titles. In its place is a self-organising model called Holacracy. The rationale is that this will help the company to become more adaptive to change and improve employee engagement, as individuals take on more responsibility for their own work.

Haier and higher from The Economist describes the attempts to transform the world’s biggest appliance-maker into a nimble internet-age firm. The firm has organised itself into 2000 self-managed teams that include responsibilities for P&L and rewarding performance.

It's too early to say whether either of these approaches will work or how they will adapt. Of greater importance is what they are pointing towards in terms of the practice of management and, perhaps, a much more fundamental disruption of how we think about this notion.
Whilst modern management as both a theorectical study and as a practice is a 20th century phenomenom, in truth management practices have been present long before these things became codified in the way they are now, e.g the building of the pyramids, the exploitation of slaves, the deployment of armies have all required the organisation of labour to achieve a desired outcome.

So what might this mean for the future role of managers?

In my blog Do manager's matter - using data to make the case I highlighted the analysis done by Google as to what employees wanted from their managers. Somewhat surprisingly, to my mind at least, was how conventional the results were: a good coach, empowering, results orientated and so on.
My hunch is that what constitutes good management practice, whether viewed from traditional management theory or a manager's perspective or from an employee's simply reverts to the status quo. It also reinforces a number of taken-for-granteds about management: that good management is about applying a set of generalised attributes and a fallacious separation between the work of managers and employees. However plausible, the attributes are too neat; they do not describe the interactional work that's taking place minute by minute between, say, the manager and their employees. If we were to look at the work of management or leadership what we would discover would not be generalisable or concrete but ephemeral and in a constant state of flux.  
The moves by Zappos and Haier to experiment with how they organise work is interesting on a number of levels.
  • First, they are bold attempts to break away from traditional approaches of organisation. The internet age is changing the ways in which we connect with each other so why not experiment with radical approaches to organisation too?
  • Second, they appear to be placing much greater emphasis on co-operation to get things done and less on the artificial distinctions between people at different levels in a hierarchy. 
  • Third, they are pointing towards something that Henry Mintzberg has been writing about for some years and that is the need for less leadership and more community-ship. Here is his quote from a piece in the FT in 2006:


Isn’t it time to think of our organisations as communities of cooperation, and in so doing put leadership in its place: not gone, but alongside other important social processes.

What should be gone is this magic bullet of the individual as the solution to the world’s problems. We are the solution to the world’s problems, you and me, all of us, working in concert. This obsession with leadership is the cause of many of the world’s problems.

And with this, let us get rid of the cult of leadership, striking at least one blow at our increasing obsession with individuality. Not to create a new cult around distributed leadership, but to recognize that the very use of the word leadership tilts thinking toward the individual and away from the community. We don’t only need better leadership, we also need less leadership.

  Mintzberg, H. (2006) 'Community-ship is the answer'. Business Education Supplement, Financial Times 23rd October 2006: 8


Whether what's happening at Zappos or Haier will work is not the point. Of more importance is what emerges from these experiments. As I have written about on many occasions before, what should be of interest to practitioners, management developers, coaches and so on is the study and understanding of the intricate workings of meaning making between people. These experiments, if studied, may help brush away the legacies of hierarchy and to look instead at how people are working together.




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