What should a ‘post-modern’ organisational structure look like?

Happy New Year everyone!

My first blog of 2014 isn’t really a blog – its a paper I wrote for work on organisational design. I was asked to research if there were any innovative ideas about what a post-modern organisational structure should be. Ie, a structure specifically designed to reflect the:

  • non-linear nature of work;
  • complex and systemic nature of human interaction and sense-making; and,
  • unpredictability, constancy and emergent nature of change. 

I was asked to do this because, we are in the process of re-designing our structure; and want, if possible to adopt a model that would foreground and engender relational practice.

In short, there is a dearth of information on this subject!

In the spirit of helpfulness and collaboration, therefore, I thought I’d put my musings online in case it is of help to others interested in this topic.

(NB: If you know of any articles on this subject, please do leave the relevant link/s at the bottom of this post.)

So, for what its worth, here are some of my insights from my inquiry:

An organisational structure is essentially a rationalised blueprint of activities and how they fit together to accomplish the work of that organisation.

In modernist thinking, rational formal structure is assumed to be the most effective way of coordinating and controlling the complex relational networks of large organisations.

There is normally a gap between the ‘blueprint’ (the way things should be done around here); and, the informal organisation (ie, how things really work in terms of culture and behaviours).

According to one research on the efficacy of organisational structures, “structural elements are only loosely linked to each other and to activities, rules are often violated, decisions are often unimplemented, or if implemented have uncertain consequences, technologies are problematic, and evaluation and inspection systems are subverted or rendered so vague as to provide little coordination”. This has given rise to the belief that flat structures are the solution in that it:

    • Makes empowerment possible;
    • Avoids uncoordinated ‘workarounds’ due to bureaucracy;
    • Is more likely to attract a younger workforce;
    • Taps into the phenomena/power of getting things done through social networking but internally, ie, within their organisations.

According to the CCO (Chief Culture Officer!!!) of Google, their goal is to have “a flat organisation, a lack of hierarchy, a collaborative environment.”

Many innovation-based companies have jumped on this band wagon, leading to the observation that many of these companies are beginning to look alike!

There seem to be agreement that, at the moment, the gold star standard for doing this belongs to Apple.

The HR fraternity seems to like this development because flat structures allow employees to:

    • “take initiative without needing approval from multiple managers”,
    • “take charge, help make decisions and feel responsible for the organisation’s success”.

Flat structures only succeed with competent staff who have a likeminded interest in the success of the company.

A key concept is the notion of “enterprise social networking”, ie the breaking down of traditional barriers by encouraging a social networking culture. The idea is that this kind of internal social networking (through appropriate IT) bypasses hierarchies by creating an environment where employees can dialogue with anyone from their organization.

All that glitters is not gold…

Ironically, so-called flat organisations are in reality, not that much flatter! Just take a look at this:


A friend from Facebook (who also worked from Google and Microsoft) advised that there is a difference between the rhetoric used for marketing/branding of these organisations, and lived reality of staff. He counselled interviewing their employees to get a sense of what its really like.

Dark side of the moon!

Some critics have observed that while the structures of these so called innovative companies are not traditionally hierarchical, they rely on other means of exerting (psychological) forms of control to achieve high level of compliance and productivity.

Other concerns around flat structures include:

  • Left hand doesn’t know what right hand is doing
  • Managers do not know how to manage relationally (less hierarchically)
  • Accountability and Performance difficult to coordinate
  • Difficult to get right level of coordination, communication and coherence between various staff members
  • Managers have too many staff to manage
  • May not be suitable for complex activities/organisations.

This satirical diagram sums this up some of above concerns!

org chats

The Relational Turn

Apart from a consensus that a agile and innovative organisations should be flatter, I couldn’t find any suggestions about organisational structures designed specifically to promote relational practice.

A relational orientation does not necessarily mean a denial of hierarchy. Every human system has different parts/functions (2 Cor 12). Rather,

  • it is a recognition of the interconnectedness and interdependence of the whole body/function/system, and, in this context, the systemic effects of managerial action or inaction;
  • It is about offering a narrative for responsible leadership and organising that is aligned with shared values and beliefs.

Neither does it necessarily mean an inversion of hierarchy (with the associated danger of a pseudo collaboration) but the development of aesthetic and practical skills in managing power within a complexity of contexts with grace and respect to the Tearfund community and what we are called to do.

I think the following diagram sums up beautifully where we want to get to. I’m sure that there are organisation structures that will enable rather than inhibit this from happening. I’m interested to keep exploring this. However, I’m beginning to wonder if a relational orientation is more about re-imaging/developing workforce as community and designing work that helps people to flourish. If so, we would do well to focus on developing people (OD) rather than worrying too much about designing a structure for this. Surely if we do the former well, the latter will emerge.

Relational turn

2 thoughts on “What should a ‘post-modern’ organisational structure look like?

  1. Patrick – thank you for sharing these insightful reflections. We do need a substantial paradigm shift and I am excited about what this can yield. You might also find the recent article on ‘IDEO’s Culture of Helping’ in HBR (Jan-Feb 2014) compliments your own thinking and provides live evidence (interestingly the subtitle of the piece is ‘By making collaborative generosity the norm, the design firm has unleashed it’s creativity’).

    1. Thank you for your kind words Sue and for the heads up on the article. I will read it with great interest. Love the phrase “collaborative generosity. One of my preoccupations as an OD/HR practitioner is how to engender a culture where we are ‘walking the talk’. We spend most of our lives at work. Wouldn’t it be great if these are life-giving and fun places to be!

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