A Challenging Organisational Context
Business leaders today face a ‘perfect storm’ of challenging conditions that degrade the performance of their organisations. Conditions, that include: the demographic shift to and increasing role of KNOWLEDGE WORK, increasing task uncertainty and complexity, searing competitive pressures, GLOBALISATION, flattening and DE-LAYERING of hierarchical structures, increasingly frequent RE-STRUCTURING, multi-team membership, shared leadership, self-managing teams, outsourcing of strategic non-core activities, technology development, functional fragmentation and specialism, increased diversity and colliding cultures, pluralistic management systems with (often) conflicting demands on scarce resources. Collectively, these combine to create uncertain conditions, they compromise engagement and communication, and disrupt coordination between individuals and teams. More importantly, the impact of these conditions is amplified by gaps in our understanding of best practice. Put simply, the adoption of team working practices within organisations has progressed beyond the understanding of what is required to enable repeatable outcomes and sustained high performance.
I realised that these issues are prominent in the development of Operating Models involving PEOPLE, PROCESSES and SYSTEMS. Identifying the needs associated with developing and implementing re-engineered processes is fairly straightforward. Similarly with designing and implementing new systems. However, the people element of operating models always seemed to the implementation of new policies, of process compliance through learning and development; and almost never about the often large numbers of individuals affected by these operating models, and their likely motivations and behaviours.
Knowledge Work increases task uncertainty and complexity, such that knowledge work requires intensive collaboration between interdependent individuals who are often deployed in distributed structures. This impacts teams because the ambiguity associated with knowledge work increases interdependence, creates role and goal conflict, and increases stress, especially for those individuals who are intolerant of ambiguity/uncertainty (e.g. studies of matrix organisations report that the complex decision-making processes within matrix structures result in role conflict, ambiguity, negative attitudes, motivational loss, moral disengagement, and other factors known to degrade performance. This increases the demand on the quality and quantity of social-interactions between team members, and on the understanding of the motivations and behaviours needed to realise them.
Globalisation results in the fragmentation and distribution of core processes, increases diversity, and has spawned a new form of distributed working, the ‘Virtual Team’. The impacts associated with virtual working are not trivial. Surveys suggest that more than sixty-six percent (66%) of employees are now working virtually. This impacts teams by creating challenges associated with maintaining effective lateral social-interactions between diverse stakeholder groups. Despite the prominence of distributed working, it has been found to have both positive and negative impacts for organisations. Positively, by reducing cost, boosting productivity, increasing diversity, and spreading demand on scarce resources. Negatively, by requiring team members to assume roles in multiple teams (i.e. between sixty-five percent (65%) and ninety-five percent of knowledge workers participate in multiple teams simultaneously). The trend juxtaposes with reports that a significant proportion of distributed teams suffer performance failure. For example, in 2000, the Gartner Group found that fifty percent (50%) of virtual teams failed to achieve their goals. More recent reports suggest that performance failure rates may actually be as high as eighty-two percent (82%). Although technology enables distributed working, and brings together diverse, dispersed team members, virtual teams have difficulty: collaborating effectively, gaining a shared understanding of tasks and goals, and/or maintaining the necessary levels of trust and social-cohesion between team members. For example, the personality profiles of individuals typically engaged in scientific/technical roles frequently done through distributed structures, is inconsistent with the typical personality profile required to ensure that pro-social behaviours are spontaneous.
De-layering of hierarchical structures results in decreased leadership and flat, wide structures that result in increased TEAM SIZE. The impact of increased team size is known to be decretive to performance due to the exponential relationship between team size and interaction volume , which degrades team performance through inefficiency, over-collaboration, dysfunctional behaviour and burnout. According to data collected over several decades, the time spent on collaborative activities has increased by more than 50%, creating concerns that collaboration is having a negative impact on the productivity of knowledge workers. Indeed, it is reported that Knowledge Workers are spending so much time collaborating that they are unable to complete their tasks. Given metrics indicating a global decline in productivity, and suggestions that organisational bureaucracies are increasing, not declining, there is an forming view that collaboration is becoming counter-productive, and the associated lateral social interactions within and between teams has a detrimental effect.
Continuous Learning: Be a Part of the Change
If you’ve read this far, you may have opinions, and/or insights of your own. These are not trivial issues. They have a profound consequence for organisations and the people that work within them. Therefore, improving understanding and finding solutions to these issues is what I, and the pages of this site are dedicated to.
If you’re interested in the topics associated with Organisation Design, Leadership, Team Working, and People Management more generally, please browse the site, and revisit from time to time. My aim is to continually update it by adding the latest research and sharing the best business management articles I can find.