I have always enjoyed stories about the old west with gunfights at high noon out in the middle of nowhere. Some old western towns would start, grow and die in a very short period of time. These types of towns were called boom towns. They would start quickly, flourish and then leave a few broken down buildings with tumbleweed blowing across an otherwise empty ghost town. Other towns would boom and keep booming allowing the town to grow and spread across the frontier. Other towns would start slow and grow as needed with new and innovative ideas to meet their needs. With this combination, America moved west towards what many people called manifest destiny. Somewhere, somebody in those old western towns had to have a vision or a design for the towns that survived. Many reasons existed for starting a town, but it took a designer to bring the town to life as well as innovations to keep them going.
Wild West Organizations
Organizations of today are much like the old western towns. Some start with a boom and then quickly go bust. Others come out of the gate running and never look back. Many start out small and grow as needed. Somewhere, somebody had an idea and design for the organization to take shape. Herein lays the key to the role of organizational design in 21st century organizations which is a designer, with a plan or idea, forecasting the future and yielding to innovation to bring it to pass.
To better understand the role of organizational design today, the designer needs to accurately forecast the future of the organization and allow innovation to have free reign to get there. A successful forecast requires a solid understanding of the mission and purpose of the organization. Some organizations have thrived for years as a traditional top-down hierarchical organization while others have undergone significant innovative organizational changes. Organizational leaders constantly use innovation and forecasting to develop future organizational structures. In his textbook on the Introduction to Management Science, noted Virginia Tech professor Dr. Bernard W. Taylor III states that a forecast is a prediction of what will occur in the future and many managers of today are constantly trying to predict the future in order to make decisions in the present that will ensure the continued success of their organization. The role of organizational design becomes vital to the forecasting of organizational growth and allowing the necessary innovations to get it there.
Today, people expect to be able to work, learn, and study whenever and wherever they want. Life in an increasingly busy world is where people must balance demands from home, work, school, and family, which poses a host of logistical challenges for today’s ever more mobile society. Much like the old west, work and learning are often two sides of the same coin, and people want easy and timely access not only to the information they need, but also to tools, resources, and up-to-the moment analysis and commentary. These technology needs, as well as the increasingly essential access to social media and networks, have risen to the level of high expectations. The New Media Consortium (NMC), which is an international community of experts in technology from the practitioners who work with new technologies every day to the visionaries who are shaping the future of learning by conducting cutting edge research, identified that opportunities for informal learning in the modern world are abundant, and greatly expand on earlier notions like “just-in-time” or “found” learning. The world of work is increasingly collaborative, driving changes in the way organizations are structured. Because employers value collaboration as a critical skill, silos both in the workplace and at school are being abandoned in favor of collective intelligence. According to the NMC, to facilitate more teamwork and group communication, organizational projects and programs are relying more on tools such as wikis, Google Docs, Skype, and easily shared file-storage sites like Dropbox. Innovation is leading the way into the forecasted future.
The Wild West of Innovation
The Wild West is often thought of as lawless, unreasonable and without boundaries. Yet, through this reckless and impossible environment, the Wild West was tamed. Regent University professor, Dr. Gary Oster, concluded in his book The Light Prize that a vision that is extraordinarily expansive and even unreasonable- many would say impossible- is the key to producing successful innovation. However, not all forecasted plans lead to innovation. Some plans are simply boom towns waiting to collapse. Forecasting should be used in the innovation process to see and build for the future. The ability to see beyond the realistic and peer into the impossible or near impossible requires a leader to push beyond the edge to see what may be out there. Jay Galbraith, author of Designing Organizations, concludes that leaders of today need to become less of a decision maker and more of a decision shaper, which can be accomplished through organizational design. Albert Szent-Györgyi, a Hungarian-born biochemist who won the Nobel Prize in 1937, stated that discovery consists of seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought. Dr. Gary Oster connected discovery and innovation by defining discovery as the uncovering, identification, and recognition of a new concept, property or truth. However, true innovators need to be looking beyond the current age to see what the next age is, and then begin building the organization towards it. Strategic authors Dr. Cornelius A. de Kluyver and Dr. John A. Pearce II in their book Strategy: A View from the Top identified five common characteristics to foster a culture of innovation: first, a business needs a top-level commitment to innovation; second, a business needs a long term focus; third, a business needs a flexible organization structure, fourth, a business needs a combination of loose and tight planning and control; fifth, a business needs a system of appropriate incentives.
The 21st century organizational design will require an ability to share ideas, knowledge, resources and skills across organizational, generational and cultural boundaries within and outside of the organizational system for the purpose of achieving desired goals. Notable author Dr. Richard Daft in his textbook Organization Design and Theory asserts that top executives decide on the end purpose the organization will strive for and determine the direction that it will take which shapes how the organization is designed and managed. The Wild West atmosphere of innovation can be coupled with forecasting to tame the landscape of organizational design for 21st century organizations. Implementing the five characteristics of Dr. de Kluyver and Dr. Pearce will help organizations grow and develop without becoming another ghost town in the sky.