I recently came across an excellent thought-provoking article by Harold Jarche titled Management in Networks. The ideas within are well worth expanding on and spreading more widely, hence this post.
Jarche’s central point is that within a network structure (peer-to-peer), cooperation is more important than traditional ideas of common objectives and managed collaboration. As organisations become flatter, people connect directly to others to pursue new objectives. In this world, success is founded on a high degree of knowledge sharing and exploration of areas outside core objectives that traditionally would not be permitted.
This makes an awful lot of sense to me and yet it also implies a level of maturity that I often don’t see.
Frequently I encounter organisations that are still stuck in a functionally-siloed era with ineffective sporadic collaborations. For these organisations, even implementing an effective collaboration model can be a struggle as silo owners fear a loss of power. As I spoke about in Organise people in cross-functional teams to dramatically increase productivity, such organisations frequently resemble a political war-zone and they struggle to adapt.
So just as the journey to work teams and communities of practice can be challenging and time-consuming, so I expect it will be into networks. That’s not to say that it can’t be a fast one – with the right backing. But what it probably does need is some smaller, safer steps that people feel more comfortable taking.
I always say that you can change an organisation only as fast as people are willing to stop objecting, start trying and begin learning.
Jarche goes on to say:
Indeed, free cooperation is often seen as a threat to traditional management approaches.
This is also crossing over into the “water cooler” effect which is a face-to-face version of a social network. After all, with a large number of people in the same building, aren’t organisations the perfect place for a highly face-to-face social network that supports cooperation? Some companies have tried to engineer a version of this in through architecture (Pixar comes to mind) or through enforced “away days” which are often fun but of little direct relevance to work.
I think there’s an opportunity that is being overlooked: “self-organised away days” – reserve some common time and let people organise their own activities with groups forming naturally to explore practical business improvements. No bosses. No targets. Everyone a peer. This is one possible gentle route into networks and one of the interesting intersections I can see between the old world and the new. More on these ideas later.
Free sharing is also undervalued in society at large: most people have been educated to think only about property and rights. They don’t see that to share the best of yourself with the world is the best advertising and advancement strategy you can have.
Giving away the good stuff is essential if you want to find, connect and work with the right people. It’s a live demonstration of the difference you can make and the best way to find the perfect collaborators. It should be like that inside workplaces too – but too often isn’t – with data and knowledge jealously guarded in the competitive fight to climb the tree.
So we need to change the education system too: let’s teach people how to thrive in a social network age and not expect a boss to tell them what to do.
Organisations that have a Vision and Mission and have made sure they are good ones will have a common cause that can become the focus of cooperation. But even there I think there’s an interesting interplay between how much common objectives matter and how to generate them.
Traditionally, objectives are defined solely by management who often don’t do a great job – part of this is their distance from the work (few senior people know what really happens on the ground), part of this is their distance from customer needs, and the biggest part of all may be that they are not leveraging 90% of the available talent pool. Why not encourage self-organising networks within the organisation that define their own objectives?
It will be interesting to see how far this can be taken. Yes, pure networks may be highly chaotic and lead to duplicated efforts. Dramatically improved outcomes may be worth some inefficiencies. Maybe objectives matter a lot less than rapid responses to changing needs? There will be risks.
Some organisations have already attempted to go completely ‘flat’ – Valve is a good example – but there aren’t enough examples yet for definitive conclusions. With Valve, there are rumours of informal “bosses” who are more equal than others. It is tempting to think that an individual businesses’ success is down to its structure but it could easily be market position, timing or another factor.
In the transition to networks, there is surely a host of possible steps between “managed collaboration” and “self-organised cooperation”. For example: define the cause top-down but give freedom to who participates and how they collaborate.
Equally, more time spent specifying outcomes, not methods – and freeing people up to creatively find the best method – is likely to lead to significant improvements without throwing out the entire management bible.
Perhaps this is the route some will take? Or perhaps most organisations will struggle to adapt and slowly be replaced by new ones that are really simply social networks operating under a common brand.
It will be interesting to see what emerges as a common path of transition and how quickly and dramatically organisations can change. And indeed if they can.
Jarche goes on to list Fayol’s traditional six functions of management and to list his own modern improved replacements. There’s a lot to like here, particularly his emphasis on insights, learning, PKM and servant-leadership as the new management philosophy.
There’s nothing so blinding as believing oneself to be right about something, so I strongly suspect loosening perceptual and information filters are essential practices to keep an organisation on track. This needs to bring customers into the loop; you can’t expect to understand perceptions and filters solely from the inside.
Feedback practices need to feature guided by frequent retrospectives (borrowing from Agile and Lean) and the principle: “There is no failure only feedback”. Making an organisation comfortable with experimentation and failure is critical to create the kind of learning experiences that Jarche talks about. There should be no penalties for failure; only for failure to learn. And if you learn how to take many small steps rather than a few big bets then risks are much lower too.
Servant Leadership deserves its own article and so I’ll speak more on that soon. Meanwhile, it starts with behaving like this. I’ll defer to Harold on PKM, he’s an acknowledged expert in the field.
Finally, I’m as big a fan of Daniel Pink’s motivators (Autonomy, Purpose, Mastery from Drive) as anyone but they are often seen as a threat by leaders – if we can’t control you with money, praise and punishment, maybe we can’t control you at all?
Of course, the answer to that is “No of course you can’t” but also that there’s something better than “control”: having people willingly and freely give their best to your organisation because they believe in your cause and the way you work. That can be frightening if your workplace obviously has a long way to go to get there – but it is a reason to start, not wait, and it is never as hard as people think.
I strongly recommend you read the original article and follow his writings. This is cutting-edge.
Good luck building networks in your own organisations.
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