People, Organization, Technology?

I see my friend Dave Snowden is extending/rethinking/refining his Cynefin framework, which emboldens me to follow through on an idea that won’t leave me. More completely, an idea that challenges some basic axioms and cliches that have haunted my PowerPoint/Keynote presentations for years.

Headed for my personal trash bin: ‘People, Process, Technology.’ There are 298,000 hits on the Google machine for that phrase (in quotes) – so some will no doubt disagree.

From a theoretical point of view, the Cynefin framework was a giant first clue that this triplet was endangered, and yet I found myself using it years after knowing better. From a practical perspective, the more we learn about successful open government examples and social business experiments – the evidence became clearer.

The enemy: Process. In retrospect, this is obvious, and it is possible I am the last one to realize this. For complex systems, for innovation efforts, for creativity – process engineering is not only the wrong approach, it is a mistake. These epiphany is still in its embryonic phase, but it may be that any work that is amenable to a ‘process‘ should be automated as much as possible. For the rest, technology should enable serendipity rather than predictive process.

It may be that simple. It may be People, Organization, Technology; although we should not be in a rush to replace a failed triplet with another. In discussions about ‘social business,’ we describe some fairly radical organizational structures. In fact, my definition for Social Business is as follows:

Social Business refers to an organization whose structures and processes defer to the natural systems of human interaction. This transformation from the 19th century industrial age organizational model is enabled by conversation-centered technologies that allow for low-latency, low-effort flow of information across the workforce – laterally as well as vertically. It is characterized by flattened decision cycles, real-time situational awareness, creativity, and a capacity for agility realized through adaptive responses to changes in its environment.

This definition needs to be shorter and may be missing some elements. Nevertheless, this is where I am right now. How did I get here? From a casual conversation that went like this:

“Why can’t our internal collaboration platforms be more like Facebook or LinkedIn?”

Immediately, it struck me. This isn’t the right question. The right question is: “Why do we work in organizations where natural interactions and instincts are discouraged?” The reason that consumer social media technologies experience a high adoption rate – without the ‘benefit’ of corporate training – is because they align with human aspiration. We want to share with friends. We want to strengthen our tribal affiliations. We want to help where help is needed. We solve business problems over lunch. We sketch out innovative ideas on bar napkins. This is how we live – but not how most of us work.

Others have written about new organizational structures, such as heterarchy, wirearchy, et al. We cannot fall into the trap of the last decade, where “flat organizations” were supposed to destroy hierarchy. Sociology is not extinct. But radical new organizations are possible and are in fact happening. A dear friend now works for a consulting firm where people come together into ad hoc teams to tackle projects. The firm itself is just the backplane, providing health care, office space, etc – in exchange for a percentage of revenue. The consultants/engineers/developers/project managers self-organize around opportunities. The morale is high, the reputation is strong, and the life balance is exquisite. This model does not suit junior employees, and would not work for many areas outside professional services – but it represents a triumph of natural systems over machine processes. It maximizes crew methodologies for client value.

Let’s consider that the unit of analysis is not the process, but the organization. People, Organization, Technology. Let’s run this up the flagpole and count the salutes.

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