The Evolving Context of Organisations

When i started writing about the Social Age, ten years ago, it was largely an idea. A shadow of thought whereby i tried to catch hold of the silk threads to make a web. It was clear that things were changing, and that those things were the component parts of power, of structure, of productivity, of belonging, of effect.

When i started writing about the Social Age, ten years ago, it was largely an idea. A shadow of thought whereby i tried to catch hold of the silk threads to make a web. It was clear that things were changing, and that those things were the component parts of power, of structure, of productivity, of belonging, of effect.

Whilst the individual threads may have been clear, it was not immediately apparent where the synergies, or tipping points, would be.

Today, when i describe the context of the Social Age, i say one of two things: either ‘everything is almost exactly the same as it ever was’, or ‘everything is slightly different than it ever used to be’. These are two sides of the same coin: the key part of the phrase is not ‘the same’ or ‘different’, but rather ‘EVERYTHING’.

It may seem strange to say that, because clearly plenty of things look exactly like they used to ten, or twenty years ago. My Land Rover looks the same – indeed, it’s 31 years old and has looked identical for most of that time, bar one respray and a few oil leaks.

But the context of it has changed: whilst once it’s diesel engine was held in a context of power and efficiency, today it is held in a context of pollution and noise, whilst my ownership used to be held in a context of independence, today it is in a context of rides share and car clubs. Whilst it used to be a context of British engineering today it is a context of global supply chains and chip shortages.

The thing that has changed is context. And context, in a very real way, is everything.

The Social Age changes the context of everything (even those things that look largely the same). Take the context of Organisations: the legacy of industrial collectivism, of the Organisation as a structure of control, of power being codified into hierarchy, of career being owned, of productivity correlating to infrastructure, even our relationships with space and geography, all of these things are fragmented, fractured, or simply irrelevant.

Broad paradigmatic shifts are now much more clear: radical connectivity, rebalanced power, permeability, fluid and multi dimensional mechanisms of belonging, the importance of individual agency, asymmetric disruption, the role of ambiguity, and so on.

The question can perhaps be expressed like this: how much space is there within your current conception of the Organisation for adaptation, and at what point does the mould break – at what point do we need to re-conceptualise the container?

I would argue that we need a new type of Organisation for a new type of context – but i may be wrong.

The question may come down to belief: a belief in the legacy system and it’s ability to adapt, versus the cost (financial and in other domains) of adaptation.

I take a view that we need a new system for one key reason: because social structures nest in formal ones – so we nest in the very structures of power and control that define the legacy Organisation. And for this reason, the legacy structure will be unable to change – enough or at great enough speed.

This is neither bad news, nor a particularly hard challenge to meet – although having said that, it may be insurmountable for many. Not because it’s difficult, but because it’s difficult to pay the price.

This may all sound quite peculiar: how can change be easy, how can the context of Organisations have shifted so dramatically, and is there really a high cost of simply continuing with what we know?

History is generally a good indicator of how change bites, and history shows us that as context changes, everything else changes too. As agriculture changed, so too did patterns of habitation. As industrialisation bit, so too did wealth inequality increase, and as transport technology improved, so too did opportunities for globalisation and hence redistribution of wealth and power.

A friend who is a keen observer of futurists will often decry their lack of methodology, evidence of successful prediction, and generalisation from specific observation into hyperbolic totality. And he is right to do so. But i am not a futurist, and so feel immune. I believe that my own work is more observational and naive than that.

We see, clearly, that we are radically connected, that power is shifting, that there is a rapid diversification in the experimentation into mechanisms of work, and the social expectations of it, that structures of society themselves are shifting, that even questions of citizenship and belonging have evolved. 

Indeed, i find that almost universally people are prepared to accept that the world today is significantly (if not radically) different. What differs is their ability to initiate change without a fully formed coherent narrative of what the future will be.

It’s hard to change when the future is uncertain, but equally it is naive to believe that inertia is a survival strategy, and this is the trap that Organisations get caught in.

Last year i had a cohort fail to complete a programme because they were so annoyed with my inability to provide answer, preferring instead to turn to a Business School who promised them just that.

I’m ok with that: i feel no discomfort in ambiguity, not because i am clever, but simply that i am desperate enough. If we seek comfort too fast, we will fail.

Perhaps we need to re-evaluate the term ‘comfort’, to see if it only lies in holding answers, or rather in our membership of a Community, or Organisation, that is questing. That is searching.

For me, that is enough: to explore. To explore the context of the Social Age.

We will not find an answer, but we may find confidence, and capability, to rapidly experiment. We may learn how to prototype multiple new ways of being, and hence to change without moving simply from ‘structure’ to ‘structure’.

Perhaps this is how we explore, discover, and indeed even exploit, the new Context of Organisations: through fluidity, through ambiguity, together.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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