“The name of the rose” by Umberto Eco is one of the best-selling books ever published (50 million copies sold!).
During a break between Zoom meetings recently, I came across it (on my own bookshelf…).
I bought it many years ago, but must admit that I never got around to reading it (it happens…).
Until now, that is.
It did look interesting, so I started reading it.
I don’t regret it: It’s a complex but fascinating book.
To my surprise, there’s even a story in it that illustrates a couple of organization design principles.
In the book, we follow William of Baskerville, a friar who is called to help investigate a series of murders at an abbey in Northern Italy in 1327.
The voice in the book is that of Adso, his young assistant.
The abbey is well known for its extensive library. Scholars, illustrators and munks from near and far come to visit to read the many rare books that it has in its collection.
On the first day, William and Adso visit the library and talk to librarian, named Malachi.
Here’s an excerpt:
(…) we found titles of books we had never heard of, and others most famous, that the library possessed (…) “De pentagono Salominis, Ars loquendi et intelligendi in lingua hebraica, De rebus metallicis (…), Algebra by Al-Kuwarizmi, translated into Latin by Robertus Anglicus, the Punica by Silius Italicus…
But then Wiliams becomes curious about the cataloging system. He says:
Splendid works. But in what order are they listed? He quoted from a text I did not know but which was certainly familiar to Malachi: “The librarian must have a list of all books, carefully ordered by subjects and authors, and they must be classified on the shelves with numerical indications”. How do you know the collocation of each book?
Malachi, the librarian, then shows him some annotations beside each title, such as “iii; IV gradus, V in proma graecorum”. This number indicated the position of the book on the shelf and in which room it was.
William then asks in which order the books are recorded in this list, as it does not seem to be by subject. The narrator, Adso, remarks:
He did not suggest an order by author (…) for this is a system I have seen adopted only in recent years, and at that time it was rarely used.
The librarian explains that the books are registered in order of their “aquisition, donation or entrance into our walks.”
William then remaks:
They are difficult to find, then (…)
And here we arrive at two key organization design principles.
The first is that we, as Peter Senge once remarked, forget about the designer of the ship. Or, in this case, the designer of the cataloging system.
We take it for granted that books are ordered by author or subject (or both). But somebody designed this system, and before 1327, it was not a common way to do it.
Same with organizational designs. Our organization may be organized by function, geography, market segment, or product, or some combination of these criteria.
If the structure has been in place for some years, we take it for granted. But somebody made a decision at some point in the past to introduce this structure (and it can be re-designed if we decide to do so.)
The second insight is that such choices have consequences. Depending on how we sort books and how we place them on the shelves, it will be easier or more difficult to find a given book afterwards, depending, for example, on whether we search for a specific author or a subject.
This is essentially a rudimentary version of the concept of coordination costs. There are different ways of “sorting” the roles and units in an organization.
They are not equally effective: Depending on which criterion we use for the sorting, it will be more or less costly to coordinate to perform the work processes in the organization.
This is illustrated in the challenge that we posted on the Reconfig web site. Have you tried it out yet?
P.S. The image above shows the abbey of San Michele, which was the abbey that inspired Umberto Eco to write the book!