The Social Graph of Work
The approach of the industrial era to getting something done is first to create an organization. If something new and different needs to be done, a new and different kind of organizational form needs to be put into effect. Changing the lines of accountability and reporting is the epitome of change in firms. When a new manager enters the picture, the organizational outline is typically changed into a “new” organization. But does changing the organization really change what is done? Does the change actually change anything?
An organization is metaphorically still a picture of walls defining who is inside and who is outside a particular box. Who is included and who is excluded. Who “we” are and who “they” are.
This way of thinking was acceptable in repetitive work where it was relatively easy to define what needed to be done and by whom as a definition of the quantity of labor and quality of capabilities.
As a result, organizational design created two things: the process chart and reporting lines, the hierarchy.
In creative, knowledge based work it is increasingly difficult to know the best mix of people, capabilities and tasks in advance. In many firms reporting routines are the least important part of communication. Much more flexibility than the process maps allow is needed. Interdependence between peers involves, almost by default, crossing boundaries. The walls seem to be in the wrong position or in the way, making work harder to do. What, then, is the use of the organizational theatre when it is literally impossible to define the organization before we actually do something?
What if the organization really should be an ongoing process of emergent self-organizing? Instead of thinking about the organization, let’s think about organizing.
If we take this view we don’t think about walls but we think about what we do and how groups are formed around what is actually going on or what should be going on. The new management task is to make possible the very easy and very fast emergent formation of groups and to make it as easy as possible for the best contributions from the whole network to find the applicable tasks, without knowing beforehand who knows.
The focal point in organizing is not the organizational entity one belongs to, or the manager one reports to, but the reason that brings people together. What purposes, activities and tasks unite us? What is the cause of interdependence and group formation?
It is a picture of an organization without walls, rather like contextual magnetic fields defined by gradually fading rings of attraction.
Instead of the topology of organizational boxes that are still often the visual representation of work, the architecture of work is a live social graph of networked interdependence and accountability. One of the most promising features of social technologies is the easy and efficient group formation that makes this kind of organizing possible for the first time!
It is just our thinking that is in the way of bringing down the walls.