Ever since humans first daubed works of art on rock faces and in caves, there has been evidence of mankind’s attempts to understand the world in which it finds itself. For millennia this was achieved through myth, magic, religion, storytelling and art. The world was simplified, made manageable. The acceleration in scientific discoveries and technological innovation, particularly from the period of the Enlightenment onwards, led to greater awareness and understanding by the turn of the 20th century.
This was mirrored by how people worked too. The activities of the hunter-gathering tribes giving way to communities organised around agricultural endeavours. By the first decades of the 20th century, however, industry had replaced agriculture as the dominant mode of work. Process-driven efficiency was paramount. People fulfilled roles as cogs in a bigger industrial machine, ordered in rigidly managed hierarchical structures.
Scientific discoveries continued apace during the century. Not only did people expose themselves on a global scale to the mechanised horrors they could inflict upon one another, but they made huge advances in medicine, information and communication technology, psychology, transportation and astrophysics. Scientific knowledge began to usurp or nestle uncomfortably alongside religion and mythology in our popular culture. People grappled with ontological and epistemological questions. Our attempts to understand the universe in which we reside resulted not in simplicity and order but in an emerging appreciation and acceptance of chaos and complexity.
Again, work has followed these developments. Industrial practices have ceded ground to knowledge-based work at an exponential rate in the past two decades. Hierarchical organisational models and process-driven working practices are struggling to cope with the chaos and complexity this paradigm shift has introduced to the workplace. People are beginning to question whether hierarchical structures are not overrated. Lars Kolind and Jacob Bøtter go so far, in their book Unboss, to argue that ‘hierarchy separates people – not only horizontally and vertically, but physically and psychologically – and has a propensity to lead to a rigid and uncomfortable atmosphere of unaccountability.’ In the 21st century, then, the industrial era has given way to the social era, and it is time to rethink both how we work and how we organise ourselves to do so. Hierarchy gives way to wirearchy, and networks become the new companies.
[Picture source: No. 14 (Gray) by Jackson Pollock]
At the Global Drucker Forum held earlier this month, Charles Handy observed, ‘Managing Complexity? I don’t think it can be managed. But you can exploit it.’ It is possible that working models emerging in the social era are already allowing us to do this. Handy, for example, invoked abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock’s 1948 painting No. 14 (Gray) as a good representation of complexity. But is it not also representative of a network too? And what of the organisational structures promoted by Jon Husband or Niels Pfläging? With the modern, dispersed, porous, networked organisation that is emerging in the social era have we inadvertently designed a structure that enables us to cope with complexity precisely because it mirrors it?
Another delegate at the Drucker conference, Don Tapscott, likened the self-organising networks that are emerging in the social era to the murmurations of starlings. It is a powerful image, with a large number of birds impressively synchronised, fluid and agile in their movements. Elsewhere, Kolind and Bøtter have argued in Unboss that a company is like ‘a social network of productive relationships in which stakeholders are deployed where they are of greatest use. It is designed as a flow of input that can come from anywhere in the network. The work is asynchronous in time and place, and people contribute whatever expertise they have, irrespective of rank or experience.’
This suggests a requirement for great flexibility and adaptiveness among the workforce. People need to be able to lead, to follow and to offer specialist subject matter expertise, working on multiple projects and switching between roles as required. This enables cooperation and collaboration both within a company and between its staff and customers, suppliers and other stakeholders, all of whom may be part of a project delivery team. These too are largely self-organising, self-governing groups. Knowledge and learning are among their primary currencies. Accountability is shared and activities are outcome-focused rather than process-driven. Like the starlings, working together to avoid and defend against the threat of predators, trust is another key ingredient in forming the bonds between workers in the modern networked company.
This notion of a networked organisation dealing with complexity is an area of particular interest to members of Change Agents Worldwide. Simon Terry, for example, argues that we need to recognise and respond to the humanity of our colleagues rather than treating them as components in an industrial machine. He points to the chaotic nature of humanity, and highlights the need for engagement, learning and purpose. Terry also suggests that we need to equip people for complexity rather than trying to simplify everything. Harold Jarche also picks up this theme: the very complexity of our business environments necessitating ‘continuous learning while working’. For Jarche, workers need to start working out loud, sharing their knowledge and work experiences, developing their professional networks and establishing trust between themselves and those with whom they collaborate and cooperate.
This is another way of recognising the potential in the collective, the abilities and knowledge of the whole network exceeding that of any single node.