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A trail of crumbs, runes and exclamations along my path in search of a better way to live and make a living, and a better understanding of how the world really works.

September 16, 2005

The Organization of the Future?

Filed under: Working Smarter — Dave Pollard @ 19:47
I spent the day at an interesting symposium on the Organization of the Future put on by the Boyden Institute and hosted by Steelcase Canada. Attendees included Jon Husband, Bruce Mau and Barbara Moses. The objective of the session was to envision the organization of the future, define the principles it would operate under, and begin to explore what it would take to get there.

Here are some of the elements of the picture that the participants painted:

  • an organization less like an army (hierarchical, focused on winning) and more like a family/community (collaborative, focused on well-being of members) than today’s large organizations
  • better able to deal with complexity
  • has a flexible definition of ‘work’ that is purposeful and meaningful to its people
  • is accessible, inclusive and diverse
  • is responsive to the communities it operates in
  • is self-managed, innovative and entrepreneurial
  • generates deep mutual respect and trust in its people
  • is resilient and agile, and capable of ‘acting in the moment’
  • attracts people skilled at collaboration and inclined to work collaboratively
  • has a self-determined, shared set of values
  • is committed to “not being evil” 
  • is amoeba-like (permeable borders, good sensors, able to change shape when necessary, a strong guiding nucleus, and replicable
  • is attuned to and responsive to customer needs (rather than “trying to sell them something they don’t really need or want”)
  • accommodates needs and conflicting demands of its people, using principles of reciprocity
  • motivates and engages its people
  • cross-pollinates people, ideas, knowledge, points of view
  • is transparent and authentic
  • is not location-based or location-dependent
  • uses sustainable, cradle-to-cradle practices, and does more with less
  • engages customers and other partners in design, development and decision-making, to tap into the wisdom of crowds
  • has rotating leadership, with leaders who see where the future is going before others do, and inspires others to act on that vision, and who are able to translate the complexity around them into simple truths that have meaning, direction and predictability (rather than encouraging the cult of leadership and the messiah complex of many of today’s leaders)
  • accommodates and leverages the skills and qualities of women
  • finds and clears away obstacles that prevent its people from doing their best
  • learns from nature
  • teaches people to communicate extraordinarily well, and encourages authentic, powerful conversations
  • recognizes our responsibility to leave a legacy for our children, and pays attention to them and learns from them

Sounds good, doesn’t it? But suppose half the organizations of the future were like this and the other half were like most of today’s traditional large organizations, almost the antithesis of the above. Would customers know, and care, to give their business to the New Age organizations that had these qualities, even if it might cost a bit more to do so? Would employees be willing to forgo higher salaries (and much higher salaries if they reached the top echelons of traditional organizations) for the more human, healthy working environment of the New Age organizations sketched above? Would these New Age organizations work together and prefer dealing with each other rather than dealing with more traditional organizations, and would this preference be enough to counter the oligopoly power that small groups of traditional companies, working in collusion to crush new entrants, wield in many industries?

Part of me is cynical, and thinks this is all wishful thinking. If there had been a few CEOs from large corporations present at the symposium, who could have reassured us (or disillusioned us), that might have been helpful. But part of me is also a believer in models, and I really think that if enough organizations were to emerge that exemplified this New Age behaviour, others would follow them, and the traditional model would become intolerable and be discarded, just as the slave-exploiting and robber baron models of industry yielded begrudgingly to better models in the past.

What do you think? Is what we envisioned really the organization of the future, or just a dream of incurable optimists?

Thanks to the organizers of this event. And if you ever have the chance to visit any of the showcase Steelcase facilities, go.

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