first structure the work system

org characteristics
I first developed the above table in 2009 to explain that working together [follow link for background info] requires different types of group work according to the complexity of the environment. The tension I see in workplaces today is a direct result of two (almost) opposing principles for organizational design that are necessary in workplaces that deal with complex environments, networks, emergent practices & cooperative work.

First, complex work requires strong ties and high levels of trust to enable work teams to function. On the other hand, innovation needs loose ties and a wide network to get diverse points of view. In these loose networks, cooperation (sharing freely without any quid pro quo) is the order of the day, not collaboration (working together toward a common objective).

The problem is that in a TIMN world, one cannot focus only on networks and complexity and ignore the rest. Therefore there is no single answer on how diverse a work team should be, or the right balance between time spent with loose networks and time spent focused on projects. It’s not as simple as tacking on 20% time. Work and learning are in dynamic tension at all times. While some action and coordination in the workplace can be automated with performance support systems, collaboration and cooperation are still intensely human and require continuous learning.

My recommendation has been to support workplace activities that are both cooperative and collaborative and also to provide the necessary support structures. However, my observations to date show that a third piece is required, and that is the fostering of communities of practice to connect the two. These communities, internal and external; are a safe place between highly focused work and potentially chaotic social networking. I also see the support of communities of practice, through skill development and structural support, as a primary role for learning & development staff.

Enabling people to work in all three spaces is more natural than boxing work as a separate activity from learning and development. John Bordeaux has had similar thoughts about the need to focus on organizational design instead of process design. I think humans, with their complex brains, can develop processes that work, if they are in organizations that allow them to be natural. I also think that this model can work with junior employees, if they are treated like adults. John asks a key question, “Why do we work in organizations where natural interactions and instincts are discouraged?”

“Others have written about new organizational structures, such as heterarchy, wirearchy, et al.  We cannot fall into the trap of the last decade, where “flat organizations” were supposed to destroy hierarchy.  Sociology is not extinct.  But radical new organizations are possible and are in fact happening.  A dear friend now works for a consulting firm where people come together into ad hoc teams to tackle projects.  The firm itself is just the backplane, providing health care, office space, etc – in exchange for a percentage of revenue.  The consultants/engineers/developers/project managers self-organize around opportunities.  The morale is high, the reputation is strong, and the life balance is exquisite.  This model does not suit junior employees, and would not work for many areas outside professional services – but it represents a triumph of natural systems over machine processes.  It maximizes crew methodologies for client value.”

One Response to “first structure the work system”

  1. Jeff Merrell

    As usual, a great post that really resonates with my own experience (and thinking).

    I would add that we sometimes get all tripped up over the use of “community” in community-of-practice, in the context that you use it here. And I am familiar with Wenger’s work and his (and others’) distinctions between communities and networks of practice. I really do believe you are spot-on about CoPs being a key third piece – but I think that we might want to focus more on the “practice” part as the glue. Whether or not it is a community (however we define it) becomes slightly less important that there being some kind of authentic, open, trusting, I-know-you- well set of networked relationships based on a common practice.

    I, for example, am diving a good deal into the MOOC world. (Who isn’t, right?). I have a set of very strong relationships with people of similar backgrounds (higher ed, pedagogy geeks, ed tech enthusiasts) and we are continually solving real problems and testing out ideas and sharing results. Are we a “community?” Maybe. Maybe not. In the end, I don’t care a whole lot. But I just know that ARE something that lies between work teams and social networks.

    Either way. Thanks for the post and the opportunity to think out loud.


Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)