I am using a series of posts to explore broad shifts in Organisational Learning (as part of a wider discussion around the evolution of the Organisation itself). I find it increasingly difficult to separate conversations about ‘learning’ from the other strands of the Social Age, considering leadership, Org Design, technology, culture, or change, as ‘learning’ has fundamentally shifted from static to dynamic, from central to dispersed, and from owned to co-created. Today i am considering one of the tensions: that between structure and space, between control and freedom.
Organisations are built from a range of materials, principles, and commitments: from bricks and silicon chips, from rules and law, from engagement and loyalty. From belonging.
But there is nothing magical about this mix: indeed, the recipe we used yesterday may be unfit for tomorrow.
Take some of the fundamentals: in ‘The Socially Dynamic Organisation’, a book that explores the evolution of Organisations from a structural perspective, i talk about Organisations being entities of power and control.
Our legacy Organisations, based around vertical pillars of structure, bound by rules, and codified power, are strong. Specifically they are strong in known respects: able to be productive, safe, and controlled against formal and visible threats, and able to exploit a narrow range of opportunity.
Most modern Organisations, i would argue, are seeking to evolve into something different: still strong against yesterdays needs, but also able to identify opportunity, to build and deploy new strength, to be efficient, productive, and adaptive, whilst also often being smaller and faster. They want more, but to pay for it with different currencies.
This view is the foundation of the sketch i share today: that we need to engineer in more space: space between us, space around us. And to be connected in new ways across and within that space.
Legacy Organisations are transparent in that their rigid bonds are held in Org Structure charts, written rules, and within societal laws and norms. They also exist in opaque structures of folklore, social tribal rules, and tribal culture, but essentially the hard edges are visible and clear.
As part of our revision of Org structure and culture, part of what we may wish to do is to engineer in more space, and more fluid connection, both in the formal visible sense, but also to allow for social connection and spread. The question may be to what extent this process is managed, structured, and controlled, and to what extent is it emergent and ad hoc.
Our temptation to own it may simply make it part of the formal, but left to chance it may become local and social, yet not interconnected and globally purposeful or effective.
This, perhaps, is our space of innovation: to build the Organisation anew with new materials, and new spaces. Some formal structure, some social innovation, some formal connection, and some social fluidity. To create a structure overall more generalised and capable, more adaptable, and yet safe enough.
The notion of ‘safe enough’ is a challenging one: how safe do you want to be? Safe and static, or safely in motion? Our legacy notions of risk may work against us here: if we mitigate risk and stick to known byways, we remain safe yet stagnant in a constantly evolving context. At best we simply miss opportunity, at worst, we fail and fracture.
There is an industry of Change that would start with structure, and there is some value in that. But if i were to bet, i would bet on culture, storytelling, folklore and individual agency. And i moved from betting to investment, i would be seeking out those who exist at the intersection who, with the right support, technology, trust, and opportunity, may engineer the Organisation that we need.
There are many peripheral elements of this challenge: new materials to build with, new opportunity to seize: our enhanced capability with data and analytics, our predictive and analytic engines, our socially collaborative technologies, and indeed the legacy of the pandemic – the fracturing of dogma itself.