Can dinosaurs give birth to gazelles?
Most business leaders that I meet today seem to be a new breed of forward thinking intelligent people. The challenges they face vary as they're all at different stages of organisational evolution. Some are in the fire-fighting stage and are battling to bring order out of chaos, whilst the luckier one's are striving to create new ideas and structures to outshine all who went before them.
So if most leaders are forward thinking, enlightened people - with a passion for change and improvement, why do we hear so many people grumbling about work-stack overload, delays in decision making, bureaucracy and overzealous management?
Many suggest that it's due to an existing layer of middle and senior management dinosaurs, who lurk beneath the surface, intent on stifling new ways of working that might undermine their authority. I've heard this described as a tranche of seemingly talented professionals with a Machiavellian outlook, often characterized by a disregard for others and a focus on self-interest and personal gain; is this perhaps a bit harsh?
Dr Gary Hamel, the American management expert, said in a Harvard Business Review some years back: "a manager’s job has been described as keeping the organisation from collapsing under the weight of its own complexity", and that "a multi-tiered management structure means more approval layers and slower responses. In their eagerness to exercise authority, managers often impede rather than expedite decision making".
This sounds a little more measured, and certainly something is hindering the ambition to improve the way organisations work. Of course workplace transformation shows no signs of slowing down, and managers are continually adapting to ever more flexible working practices and dispersed team members, a world where people are judged increasingly on their output and not the time they spend at their desk.
"The emergence of the networked information economy has the potential to increase individual autonomy" says Yochai Benkler, the acclaimed thinker and Professor of Entrepreneurial Legal Studies at Harvard Law School. “The removal of the physical constraints on effective information production has made human creativity and the economics of information itself the core structuring facts in the new networked information economy.”
Within organisations, access to knowledge, support and the production of information has been likened to the development of open source software, where ground rules do exist but don't seem to hinder the desire of people to contribute. According to Wikipedia as of March 2014, the SourceForge repository claimed to host more than 430,000 projects and had more than 3.7 million registered users. With all their human and financial capital, could Microsoft, IBM, and Accenture collaborate to achieve this kind of productivity?
The term 'open source' is evolving to mean projects that are accessed, modified and developed by groups of people. And though the term's origin lies in software development, it's starting to mean a set of values around collaborative participation and community development.
So the harnessing of employee's knowledge and enthusiasm through new ways of working is gathering steam. Flatter organisational structures with far fewer management layers are taking hold, and collaborative projects are no longer always led by the most senior person. New collaboration platforms and systems are evolving with this - signalling the end of the email era.
The words of Lew Platt, former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, sum this up perfectly. In 2013 he said; "if only HP knew what HP knows, we would be three-times more profitable". It's towards this vision that we're heading - and I wonder if the corporate dinosaurs will adapt or finally become extinct? Unfortunately, faced with the choice between changing one's mind and proving there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.
Dinosaurs don't give birth to gazelles.
Gary Hamel, Harvard Business Review
Yochai Benkler, The Wealth Of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets And Freedom