Monday, 12 December 2011

The Hybrid Organisational Model

I've been listening to another podcast of The Bottom Line,  discussing organisational structure - the pros and cons of flat and hierarchic companies.  It occurred to me that although organisations tend to be either more flat or more hierarchic, there is no such thing as a purely flat or a rigidly hierarchic organisation.  It simply wouldn't work.  Some hierarchic structure is required to support decision-making and control, and some 'flatness' is required to support cross-functional business processes that deliver outcomes for the customer.  A company with a 100% rigid hierarchy will suffer fatally from closed silos and an entirely flat organisation is a headless chicken with no leadership.

Mike the headless chicken lived for 18 months - 
That's 12 months longer than most loft-based new media companies.

Long-established blue chip multinationals typically have rigid hierarchic structures and struggle with internal communication.  Ideas coming from the shop floor are often watered down as they get pushed up the ladder to the point where ‘Chinese whispers’ takes effect and the idea becomes warped and ineffective.  However, to a certain extent, a well-defined structure is necessary to support the massive bulk of the organisation which would otherwise collapse into chaos under its own weight.

Smaller, more dynamic start-ups favour flatter organisational structures, often because they don't have the massive workforces of the blue-chips that require a tighter organisation and want to cultivate the sort of collaboration that drives agile innovation and rapid execution to compete with the blue-chips.

Where hierarchic organisations favour strong leadership and control, flat organisations promote collaboration, information sharing, productivity and innovation in day-to-day operations.  Hierarchies have their place where large-scale organisation change needs to happen - the communication of vision and the control that is required to execute that vision.  The trick is the timing of where to enforce the hierarchy and where to let flat collaboration reign.  The truth is that successful organisations use a combination of both, switching between one and the other to encourage collaboration yet retain control and solid leadership when it is required.

 Managing a 'flat' organisation takes strong leadership.  Mustache optional.

So what has this all got to do with IT?  The same principles apply to the IT department, an organisation within the organisation.  It's all about balancing the leadership and control of a well-defined structure, with the collaboration and innovation that comes with flattening out and breaking down silos.  IT needs to be part of the management function setting and communicating vision in a structural context, and needs to work with the business units that IT supports in a flat context.  In IT operations - where service delivery and support lives - a business process management view focusing on the customer outcome is critical to service provisioning that works.  This is more achievable in a flat organisation where separate functions work together in a coordinated manner to draw together service components.  Break-fix support is more about problem solving so a flat organisation also lends itself to the sort of cross-departmental collaboration that it required to solve the problem quickly.

You can listen to the full podcast of The Bottom Line at

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