by Jeroen van Bree, EODF and ODI Chair
Phanish Puranam (et al.) described organising as the process of solving “two fundamental and interlinked problems: the division of labor and the integration of effort”. This fits with the day-to-day challenges that are faced by organisation designers: those internal and external organisational agents attempting to fit the parts of an organisation together in such a way that its strategic intents are achieved. So if both academics and practitioners have a very similar understanding of the fundamental challenge of organisation design, this should offer very fertile ground for further improving the exchange between theory and practice.
And this is opportune, because there seems to be a dearth of practitioner-oriented research that focuses on these two fundamental problems (division of labor and integration of effort) on the enterprise level. There is an abundance of good research and promising research avenues that focus on the work-team level: what are the conditions for teams to become ‘high-performing’? what are the dynamics in teams that are ‘self-directed’? But when it comes to integrating the efforts of these teams, there is far less research and theory-building for practitioners to work with.
This issue has become more pressing in recent years with the rise of ‘new forms of organizing’. Specifically platforms and ecosystems of loosely coupled organisations (such as those around Apple, Facebook and Airbnb) as well as self-directed teams and ‘boss-less’ organisations are on many executives’ minds as a potential inspiration for their own organisational model. The integration of effort in these contexts seems to be at once easier and more difficult. Easier because of the support of information technology and more difficult because of the gradual dismissal of the middle manager, to whom a lot of the integration burden falls in traditional ways of organizing. Recent explorations of non-traditional organisations such as Valve and GitHub offer a sharper focus on the questions we need to be asking about these cases, but leave us wanting more when it comes to the answers.
For the integration of effort, we tend to revert to Thompson and Mintzberg for a theoretical basis about types of interdependence and coordinating mechanisms. The latter can take the form of ‘lateral processes’ such as integrating roles or dual reporting lines. There are certainly many examples of large-scale firms that seem to adequately address the integration challenge, either by using a matrixed model or by evolving beyond the matrix to more hybrid models to reconcile the multiple dimensions they are dealing with. However, many of these examples beg for some type of formal evaluation to help us understand what works under which conditions.
Consider this a call to action for researchers as well as practitioners and organisational leaders. The issue of integration of effort is but a starting point. Let us collect some of the big organisation design challenges that remain unanswered, or at least poorly investigated. Organisational leaders will need to play an important role in this. Both as the ones phrasing the research questions, as well as the ones offering access to their organisation for conducting the research. And of course, also as the ones benefiting from the insights and knowledge that is generated.
As a practitioner-oriented professional association, the European Organisation Design Forum has decided to create a new platform for this research and for other ways to further advance the field. We call this new platform the Organisation Design Institute and one of its aims will be to move forward on the above call to action. If this need for fresh research resonates with you and you feel you have something to contribute – either as a researcher, internal/external consultant or organisational leader – we would like to hear from you. Let us know in the comments below or by reaching out directly.