Organise Against the Machine

As part of our current research programme we have been exploring the theme of Organisational Ecologies in an attempt to identify the innovative practices that are embedded within them. One of the starting points for this research was to review the current state of organisational development and its historical significance for the practice of innovation. The most interesting growth in organisational development has, in the last twenty years, been driven by the need to escape over rationalised mechanistic forms of organisational design and the consequences that have been produced by them. From the early beginnings of ‘Scientific Management’ to the multiple examples of its latter-day variants, the over-riding principle of organisational design has been that of command and control, and as the 21st Century gains momentum it is becoming very clear that this form of organisation, in terms of creating innovation, has reached the end of its shelf life.

Organisations have historically made use of command and control structures with good reason. During the industrial revolution it was necessary to employ types of military practices to organise large groups of workers and train them to perform scalable tasks in ever decreasing units of time. Most of the significant industries of this period quickly recognised the value of applying these quasi-military practices, as well as the gains that could be made from them. These practices were first described by Adam Smith in his Wealth of Nations (1776) and honed to ‘perfection‘ by Frederick Taylor through the principles of scientific management. These principles can be recognised in their contemporary form throughout most modern organisations in the practice of functional specialisation. Functional specialisation will be very familiar to anyone who has worked in a modern organisation, as it’s the type of organisational form that is most widely used within our western corporations today. You will find it represented through the ubiquitous organogram, the chart that defines jobs and roles organised in a hierarchical manner within precisely defined lines of command and communication linked to a set of predetermined goals. These mechanical models of organisational design do, or rather did, have their benefits, but times have now changed.

In terms of creating innovation, the long term problem with the mechanistic organisation has been its inability to react to changes in the environment in which it is situated. Instead of providing the basis for its existence, its goal orientated trajectory often becomes the noose through which it is hanged. Its difficulty has always been adapting to the circumstances that sit ‘outside’ of its predetermined goals. Changing situations and circumstances call for different kinds of mobility. Radical flexibility and capacities for creative action become more important than narrow streamlined efficiency for creating new forms of value. As Gareth Morgan has stated ‘the compartmentalisation created by mechanistic divisions between different hierarchical levels, functions, roles and people tends to create barriers and stumbling blocks.’ These are all obstacles to the types of innovation that are so desperately needed.

This problem is not a new one, it is a problem that has plagued organisations and those interested in organisational development for years. What is new in this situation are the circumstances that we now face and the demands they make of us to think and act in ways we have yet to experience. How we shape our organisational environments to explore more diverse ways of collaborating and innovating is quickly becoming a question of unprecedented necessity. We should therefore treat this necessity as the catalyst for reshaping how our organisations create the capacities to connect with their ‘outside’, in the eventual hope that the machine can be somehow thought anew.