In my two last blog posts I discussed the difference between individuals and roles. I decided to focus on this issue as it in many ways is the foundation for organization design. This is particularly clear if you consult Elliot Jaques’ writings. Jaques made this difference clear from the beginning, by pointing out that one should define an organization as a set of roles and not as a collection of individuals. So without the concept of role you can have “people development”, but you cannot have “organization design”. Let me conclude this series of blog posts by considering briefly the issue of fairness.
When planning an organization design process, most people will agree that one should first define roles, and then consider the individuals that might fit the different roles that have been defined. The main rationale is to ensure that the organization’s strategic goals and the design requirements are met, rather than constructing an organization that suit the particular individuals that inhabit key roles today.
Somewhat counter-intuitively, focusing on roles rather than individuals may also be in the long time interest of the employees of the organization. Mixing up roles and individuals tends to increase the level of “politics” in any decision process (I provided an example in my blog post last week). By focusing on roles, one is able – at least in principle – to create a systematic and transparent process where job requirements are explicitly defined and where the qualifications of alternative candidates are evaluated.
I attended a talk by Stephen Drotter (co-author of the Leadership Pipeline) a few years ago where he made a similar point in discussing the role of HR. He said that HR traditionally has focused on the the supply of labor – that is, on people (e.g., by increasing the supply of labor by recruiting and retaining people). He said that the first priority should instead be to focus on the work to be done – on the demand (e.g., by making sure that every job is necessary and adding value, and that every job is properly defined and placed at the right level). He then went on to state that:
“…people are treated better, developed more completely and included more appropriately if our thinking and actions start on the demand side.”