Free Range employees?

Posted: April 21, 2013 by Matthew Hanwell in Human Resources, Leadership, Organization, People

When you think about it “Organizations” like things to be neat, tidy, orderly, structured, regimented, disciplined, predictable, uniform, controlled (and probably many more things). So it is of no surprise that most, if not all organizations will spend significant time, effort and resources on firstly establishing and then maintaining the structures, policies, processes, culture and ways of working that keep them as organized as possible. Much of this organizing is focused on containing things, limiting, putting things in tidy organizational boxes, as so typically depicted in an organizational chart. Boxes that fit neatly together and can be presented on a PowerPoint. Boxes that have defined boundaries. Boxes with interfaces or pre-defined relationship to other boxes. Boxes with lids on. Ultimately boxes which contain people. Such boxes may describe a position, a job, a cost centre, an organizational unit, a team, a project, a rating, perhaps even a cubicle! But nevertheless boxes (or cages?).

When conducting a social network analysis (definition of SNA) within an organization I was always struck at how little this reflected the formal organizational chart, how relationships were often based on more than official reporting lines, how support was gained independently of roles, or cost centres. It always surprised me that more SNA studies were not performed to gain a better understanding and insight as to how work was performed especially prior to any re-organization. Perhaps the output of an SNA study are not organized enough, maybe some of the images (network relationship diagrams) are open to interpretation, or perhaps they reveal a non-hierarchical view of the organization that ‘management’ is not comfortable with.

It is usually Management together with ‘support functions’ that will spend perhaps the majority of their time and effort maintaining the organization, all the boxes and the infrastructure that holds them all together. I do wonder if organizations are simply over organized. Are we restricting people, our employees or enabling them with our organization? Is all the time, effort and resources needed to maintain the organizational structures necessary? When do we have enough organization? Just how many cost centres does a company need? How many organizational units? How many layers? What span of control? Do we ever stop to think if the structures we have are still needed, perhaps pausing to consider releasing our employee’s, allowing them more free range?

“Ninety percent of what we call ‘management’ consists of making it difficult for people to get things done”.

Peter F. Drucker, (b. 1909) American Management Consultant

Is 90% of management about making it difficult to get things done? (What is the 10% that makes it easy?) Do the structures, the organization we establish enable our employees and our businesses to flourish? Do they enable employees to do their very best work and create maximum value to our customers? Would organizations collapse into chaos without all the established structures, all these boxes? Are there any alternatives, as we move from the industrial age, can we re-think, re-imagine a different way of coordinating work?

We live in a world where so many of us are now electronically connected. Where each and every one of us has access to amazing amounts of information and knowledge, at lightening speed, never before possible. Where our value comes not from the number of hours we spend in a cubicle, but in the creativity, the innovations, the ideas and the knowledge that we have, and that we typically produced through collaboration. Many organizations are still maintaining the structures that worked in the industrial age; traditional managers are struggling to cope in this new era of collaboration, openness, transparency, in followership and more free choice, in a world that is no longer orderly, at least not in the same way it was. Are we entering an era of free range employees?

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