Image used with permission courtesy of Many Cornet, www.bonkersworld.net
At a conference last week in Oslo, I attended a session where we discussed the state of academic research on organization design. An interesting talk was delivered by Professor Lars Groth of the University of Oslo (pictured below).
Prof. Groth dissected these organizational forms and argued that they could all be explained by using the terminology and concepts in Mintzberg’s book on organization design from 1979. As an example, he claimed that the so-called C-form is basically another term for Mintzberg’s concept of the Adhocracy.
Prof. Groth was also interested in the connection between information technology and organizational design. He pointed out that people have been repeatedly wrong in predicting that new information technologies would change authority relations. The advent of computer networks was supposed to create non-hierarchical “network organizations”.
He argued that this belief was like thinking that the introduction of the telephone would remove the need for bosses in an organization. It didn’t; and organizations with computer networks are perhaps somewhat flatter than before but still hierarchical.
I agree with Prof Groth that there is a tendency to exaggerate “newness” and create buzzwords, rather than building on earlier established concepts. The effect is that we become unable to build cumulative knowledge about organization design as we keep on reinventing the same concepts.
I would like to take issue with him on a couple of points, though. First, I do think there are some organizational forms today that were not described in the older literature. As an example, Mintzberg’s description of the matrix form is not identical to the current concept of the multidimensional organization (something I discuss in some detail in my upcoming book).
More importantly, though, I think it is somewhat futile to look at “new organizational forms” separately from the purposes and functions that they serve. It’s a bit like an engineer taking apart an iPad and concluding – “Well, there’s nothing really new here, only a screen, chassis, microprocessor, and battery – we have seen all that before!”. Yes, we have, but innovation is not only about new forms, but about how you re-combine existing things to meet functional requirements that were previously seen as incompatible (in the case of the iPad, these functions could be excellent usability, affordable price, great visual design and connectivity, etc.).
So rather than looking at organizational forms in isolation, we should ask about functions: Are there organizations today that are able to create organizations that meet different functional demands that we have thought were difficult or impossible to achieve (in combination)?
As an example, Mintzberg (1979) was very critical of the prospect of democratic organizations where workers elect supervisors and/or participate in decision making. He pointed out that the available studies show that democratic governance in organizations lead to less efficiency and more rather than less centralization. The question we should ask today is whether there are organizations that are able to introduce democratic governance, while at the same time maintaining speed and efficiency. If so, that would be something new.
Creative organization designers are not the ones who invent new words for organizational forms but those that use already familiar building blocks (roles, processes, structures) in new combinations to achieve results that others thought were impossible.