I grew up in an old city: the Roman military foundations overwritten by Medieval commerce and power. Most of the medieval city wall still stand, as well as the motte (the mound) upon which the castle stood. And dominating the skyline from every direction, the Cathedral, whose grounds and gardens dominate fully one quarter of the area enclosed by the walls.
The city is arranged in the shape of a cross, with key roads running north, east, south and west, with the Market Cross at the centre. This is a common structure to market towns and cities across the UK and beyond. Spaces of togetherness sit in the centre, both for worship and trade, as well as the spaces of the more mundane aspects of bureaucracy and control (the municipal buildings and jails).
Whilst cities persist, they do change, and the exodus of retail has hollowed out many, with a general shift towards entertainment and leisure destinations, so today you are more likely to find a pub or restaurant than a hardware store, and a cinema more than a cattle market.
In similar vein, the environment of Organisations has shifted too, but not necessarily as fast. The legacy was one of collectivism and control: bringing together diverse talent, within an infrastructure of productivity, and a framework of oversight and control. Geolocated and grounded.
Much of that, in the context of the Social Age, has changed, but much of the legacy infrastructure remains.
Offices themselves typify this: Organisations intuitively feel that they need space – and the probably do – but they are hampered by the physical nature of the legacy space – and often do not understand what they need to replace it.
We probably need spaces of togetherness, and spaces of work and productivity, but these may not include desks, and the subdivision of space that we currently hold. And nor will they necessarily be centralised.
One can conceive the distributed Organisation setting up more of a community hub network in smaller towns and farms, villages and ports, spaces that are wider apart, but more connected to community and even the environment. Spaces that are fluid and can be repurposed to need – much as we need the structure of the Organisation itself to be fluid to need.
It’s not simply physical structure and infrastructure that needs to be re-authored: much of the connective web of the Organisation itself can be redone.
We can see a general disaggregation of task from role, and role from hierarchy, as well as a shift from one to multi dimensional systems of power, and from formal to social models of moderation and control. Also shifts in the nature of knowledge and access to such.
These are all broad strokes that erode the validity of legacy models of Organisation: away from place, away from control, away from ownership, away from visible, and so on.
My sense is that we are at an interesting juncture: there is a great deal of work being done, both through technology and restructure, as well as ‘cultural transformation’ initiatives and specific community based programmes, to access some of the potential of the ‘new’, but still typically anchored within structures of the old.
We need to change both: system and the structure, the conception and the experience.