The Soulless Organisation[]

Organisations exist to get work done. Any successful organisation must do three things well. It must motivate people to work, to make the most effective contribution to the collective endeavour. It must coordinate the work of many people to make sure it all adds up and takes places in the right order, to fit together. It must innovate by learning, adapting and evolving with the demands of the environment around them, exploring opportunities for change. Sounds simple. Yet traditional corporate organisations are in continual crisis over their shape, structure, management, pay systems and ethos because they find it so hard to fashion an approach to work which meets all these challenges – motivate, coordinate, innovate - at the same time.

In closed, industrial era organisations people were allocated to tasks by a division of labour, with work divided into manageable chunks. This allowed workers to become specialists in their particular task, while the central design ensured all their efforts could be brought together. If a worker was not clear what to do next, he could have a look at his job description, which would describe the role. If that did not provide the answer then he could ask someone in authority to provide guidance. The way we work now, in many respects, is nothing like this caricature of factory age work. People no longer have to work at the same time and in the same place to be producing the same item. Work has become dispersed to networks of contractors. Management hierarchies are flatter and working practices more flexible, at least for some. Detailed job descriptions are a thing of the past in many organisations. Workers can be deployed wherever they are needed. The coordination of these networks of far more flexible workers has become an art form in itself, involving logistics and international communications. The psychological contract, what both sides expect from work, has changed as well. In the US and the UK employers seem less committed to providing stable jobs for life. Relationships between workers and companies are less secure and stable, more cynical and short term. In Europe and Asia traditions of stable employment have been more enduring. But even there they are under pressure to change.

Underlying all this change in working life are two competing trends, which many feel makes life impossible for them. Big organisations with big brands, need consistent products, services and processes – often on a global scale – to deliver a consistent customer experience. Wherever you go – Starbucks, Coke, Microsoft – must mean the same thing. That means work has to be highly systematised. The workers have to follow common rules and processes. Product launches have to be planned meticulously, like a military campaign, from the centre. Yet at the same time all organisations – public and private – face a challenge of innovation and adaptation, as new technologies, competitors, consumer trends and kinds of organisation emerge around them. Responding to that changing environment means bending or breaking rules, trying to do new things or at least old things in a different way. Innovation requires variation, experimentation and acceptance of failure, not activities that a high quality, brand-led company can easily tolerate. This balancing act is complicated because these days workers are far less compliant. They have higher expectations of how they should be treated, especially younger, well-educated knowledge workers, who will make up the majority of the workforce in developed economics. Our culture has told them they should be in control of their lives. They want to extend their sense of authorship from how they design their living rooms to how they design their careers. They want to feel autonomous, able to take the initiative and be rewarded with a sense of achievement and ownership. They want their work to belong to them. These younger generations of workers have essentially democratic values: people in authority have to earn their respect, be open to question and justify their decisions.

The kind of angst these tensions create can be seen in corporate offices all over the world, but they seem most troubling in large US corporations. In 2005 I spent a few days advising a division of a very large US multinational software company. On my first day I sat in an airless, windowless room, barely large enough for two people, which had just been redesignated as the “ideas space.” The previous “ideas space”, which had been decked out with orange bean-bags, had just been taken over by extra tele-sales staff, to flog more product, because targets had been increased. Everyone seemed to be strapped to their desks, even for lunch. That day my task was to talk to each of the senior managers to find out what their main challenges were. It was not difficult to get them to talk. My pokey little room became a kind of confessional. One after the other they told a story with some common themes. It ran something like this.

The people here are great but the organisation seems soulless. Young, fleet footed competitors are emerging the whole– Google and Linux – and we are embarrassingly slow to respond. We are one of the biggest companies in the world yet in reality we are following the lead of smaller companies. Coming up with new ideas is pointless because all the decisions get made on the West coast of the US. We have no space for innovation: we just deliver products to market, according to a plan set down somewhere else. One of our main tasks is to report back to headquarters with detailed plans but the numbers in those plans are semi-fictional. When we exceed the numbers we get congratulated and when we fail there is an inquest but no one has the courage to point out the plans never made sense in the first place. No one seems to have enough time. Executives are either on a plane to the US to get their marching orders or in conference calls. Most executive time is spent serving the hierarchy, trying to fight it or simply working out what is going on at headquarters. No one seems to be very happy. Most people have their eyes on another job somewhere else, preferably soon. People with families find life pretty intolerable. The Soviet Union’s plans had nothing to compare to the detail of those that ruled this corporation.

Many large organisations seem to be like this: they are engaged in a low intensity civil war. Much of the paraphernalia of modern management is an effort to square the circle: to make organisations that are top down and financially driven, appear to be more humane, democratic and bottom-up. New forms of open, collaborative organisation are emerging because they resolve these tensions between efficiency and innovation far more effectively than the traditional corporation. These new kinds of organisations answer central questions about work – Why do I do this? Who is in charge? What do I do next? – in a very different way. That is why organisations based on open work are proving so potent.

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