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Summary:

How is the future of work changing whole organizations? A social business expert and the folks at Yammer weigh in on how we should re-jig our mental models of companies, conceiving of them more like cities with bosses playing the role of urban planner.

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Here on GigaOM we often talk about the future of work for the worker – more empowered, less tethered to location, perhaps more demanding – and about what this means for managers (Yup, it’s time to give up on points for attendance). But the same shifts in technology and the economy that are rearranging things for individuals and teams are also changing what works for whole companies.

Organizations are such a large and steady feature of the landscape that imagining a fundamental shift in their nature is a bit mind-bending– sort of like seeing a mountain flex. But that didn’t stop Dave Gray, founder of XPLANE and SVP of strategy at consultancy the Dachis Group, from tackling the problem not too long ago on his blog Communication Nation. The long post is a compelling read and worth checking out in full, but the central notion is that we need to re-conceive of companies not as machines but as organically growing cities. Gray writes:

Historically, we have thought of companies as machines, and we have designed them like we design machines. A machine typically has the following characteristics:

1. It’s designed to be controlled by a driver or operator.
2. It needs to be maintained, and when it breaks down, you fix it.
3. A machine pretty much works in the same way for the life of the machine. Eventually, things change, or the machine wears out, and you need to build or buy a new machine.

But of course, redesigning a machine while it’s in operation is incredibly tricky and that’s exactly what today’s fast-moving marketplace demands. Plus, as organizations grow larger they often choke under the weight of their own bureaucracy. There’s a better way to conceive of a company, according to Gray:

It’s time to think about what companies really are, and to design with that in mind. Companies are not so much machines as complex, dynamic, growing systems…

What happens if we think of it less like a machine and more like an organism? Or even better, what if we compared the company with other large, complex human systems, like, for example, the city?… If we start to look at companies as complex systems instead of machines, we can start to design and manage them for productivity instead of continuously hovering on the edge of collapse.

What does city-inspired organizational design and management look like? Gray begins to answer this question by pointing to research carried out by Shell in the 1980s that identified long-lived companies. Shell found that many of them had an organic, city-like organization that was decentralized, tolerated the eccentric, and featured a strong, shared culture and a dedication to actively listening and being responsive. Referencing this research, Gray has practical suggestions as well as philosophical points to make

He urges bosses interested in social business design to give everyone in their organization a home — “a place where they can put, and see, their stuff: their projects, the links they want to get back to, the documents they have created, their role, qualifications, expertise and so on” — and find ways to encourage serendipity. Gray also stresses studying the culture you actually have before you start to try and change it, so you can nurture and bring out your organization’s inherent character – there’s no use trying to turn Omaha into Brooklyn. And as you progress, listen and adapt. He writes:

Think about how city streets evolve: one small step at a time. One retailer moves to a larger space; another goes out of business. One old building is torn down and replaced; another is rehabbed and turned into lofts. Pay attention to the culture, and watch how people react to the tools you provide. Are they using something in a different way than you expected? Find out why and see if you can enhance that. And what are they ignoring? If they’re not using something you expected them to use, go talk to them and see if you can figure out the reason.

But it’s not just Gray who is examining the implications of shifting from company as machine to company as city.  Yammer’s blog recently suggested another consequence of this shift, one that should sound familiar to regular GigaOM readers. The post’s suggestion: empowering employees far more than previously.

“Companies are slowly realizing that without the right employees and the right internal culture and environment, they will never be able to compete externally and deliver goods and services at the speed of today’s business,” says the post. “The massive opportunity lies in a deliberate, collaborative and respectful partnership between the Company, the Employee and the Customer. To really capture this opportunity, we need to abandon our fear and figure out how we can work with our employees to harness their passions and their sense of power.”

Look at the future of work from the employee’s perspective and you see a move towards empowerment. Or start from an organization-wide view and you come to the same conclusion. Either way new ways of managing look more like supervisory urban planning, husbanding a network of individual citizens, rather than wrench-wielding managers tinkering with systems with that cast workers in the role of cogs.

What do you think of Gray and Yammer’s vision of the organization of the future as more like a city of empowered citizens than a machine?

Image courtesy of Flickr user Mosman Council.

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  1. See also this presentation from November’s Enterprise 2.0 conference in Santa Clara, also inspired by chats with Dave Gray and Thomas Vander Wal: http://www.thoughtfarmer.com/blog/2011/11/17/e2conf-santa-clara-2011-what-urban-planning-can-teach-social-business-design/

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