The Organization of the Future?

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.

This entry was posted in Working Smarter. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to The Organization of the Future?

  1. bernie says:

    Is this insight? I think not. This sounds like consultant/second rate academic speak. A suggestion, less talk of opposites and more talk on reality.

  2. responsive to communities in which they operate, but not location-based or dependent? motivating and engaging, but self-organized? this picture seems undecided at best, seriously conflicted at the other end.

  3. organizations will be what they always have been… groups of individuals who gather with their own personal reasons and intentions, who then find some common language, create the tools and structures they need to move in those directions, and ultimately it will still be individuals who actually do the acting, with the support of those structures. at the same time, all the individuals will have more and more connections, so they’ll have more information and options for determining and creating and choosing what is best for them, and more resources available for supporting them in taking the actions that best serve their purposes. it gets easier for smaller groups to do big things. organizations get smaller and bigger at the same time. smaller units connected to more units. everybody closer to the front lines, customers and crises, the latter meaning to say fewer guarantees.

  4. Jim Rait says:

    Matt Taylor and his web of colleagues created some models in 1996 which are of relevance to the stuff above. see and look at 10-step knowledge creation process and 5 E’s of Education. Very interesting.

  5. Tes says:

    Unfortunately what you’ve described won’t happen, it’s just too good to be true. Katrina: a few strong individuals took the lead (not necessarily those appointed to do so) to save lives and help people while too many weak individuals failed to employ lessons learned from previous disasters but instead just bumbled along, wasting time and resources, resulting in exaggerated suffering and loss. It’s wishful thinking to believe that a New Age organizational model will replace traditional models. It’s more realistic to understand and accept human behavior, at its best and at its worst, and plan accordingly. People move like schools of fish. How then, can our behavior become connected to and syncronized with the environment? Something instrinsic must compel us.

  6. Greg Burton says:

    Interesting post, Dave. If these “organizations of the future” are going to truly be a factor in the future, it will be because they meet wants and needs more effectively than traditional hierarchies do. It won’t be because of a set ideology – it will be because they work better. I think you’re asking the wrong questions.Given that, Let’s start with cost, or more properly price.Price by itself is rarely a factor, but perceived value is. If a “new age” organization provides better value for its’ price, it will attract customers. If a “new age” company wants to compete on price, it needs to provide better value at the same price. So the question there is “will a new age structure be able to provide significantly better value for the customer at the same price point?” In many cases, the answer should be yes.You next question is about employees. The assumption embedded in the question is that a differently-organized company will not be able to meet employee financial needs as well, and that’s a pernicious assumption. If our future-structured company is in reality better addapted to the competitive climate, it will be able to at least meet the pay incentives of it’s traditionally-organized competitors. It may, however, employ fewer people to produce the same level of goods and services.A preference for self-dealing within a constellation of “new age” companies refers us back to the price question. Again, if our new organizations meet the needs of other organizations more effectively, it shouldn’t even be an issue.Don’t forget that formerly dominant companies in oligarchic industries get clobbered when there is a better way of doing things – look at the North American steel industry, the telecom industry, the auto industry, and a host of others. The economic landscape is far different now than it was 30 years ago. Oligopolies aren’t forever – just ask the railroads.michael herman, the characteristics of the world are indeed changing in the way you suggest in your second comment, but I think you’re falling into the fallacy of assuming that more information will lead to better choices. That’s sometimes, but not always, the case.Tes, that’s the normal behavior in crisis, as you point out, but it’s not “strong vs weak individuals”, and you could expect people to step up or not regardless of the structure they operate in. The question is, what kind of structure will emerge to deal with the changing conditions of the world – accelerating globalization, increasing environmental stresses,increased information flow, etc. If the type of model Dave presents is more effective – and I believe it is – then changes in traditional economic structure are inevitable.

  7. Devin says:

    That sounds exactly like rhizome!

  8. gaulois says:

    Have the “slave-exploiting and robber baron models of industry” really yielded begrudgingly to better models?

  9. Jon Husband says:

    Don’t forget that formerly dominant companies in oligarchic industries get clobbered when there is a better way of doing things – look at the North American steel industry, the telecom industry, the auto industry, and a host of others.Yes, and they were operating on assumptions of division of labour, mass production efficiencies and mass markets that are increasingly appearing to become obsolete .. and did not foresee the interconnected, hyperlinked conditions that continue to make their presence felt.

Comments are closed.