What comes next: Discovering the 21st century organization

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We are enabling and discovering the next generation organization. Command and Control served us well for a long time, but we’ve reached its limits. Its still useful, but for organizations to be successful in the 21st century, they need to be more fluid, more efficient, learning and production entities that are focused on the team supported by things like processes, structures and other assets.

Command and Control has its limitations.

Have you ever watched an organization try to reorganize? Have you heard the debate about what should be centralized, what should be team based, reporting structures, “matrixes”? Its a mess, eh? Because any truly functional organization is deeply interdependent. Command and control does not model interdependence well. The 21st century organization will be learning how to foster interdependence amongst functions and individuals

The command and control structure that is the norm in nearly all organizations of the last few hundred years embody two 18th century “truths” – that are still true, but meaningfully different in the 21st century. First – not everyone has equal skills, talent and power. Second, communication to and amongst a large number of people is difficult and must be inter-mediated.

We are not equal: Skills, talent and power

People are not fungible. We have different skills, talents, backgrounds and perspectives. ( People talk about the “A” team and the “B” team – but on only part of that  is raw “talent” and many times  context, experience and commitment are equally important. Are they in the right place, with the right insight, right resources, right support, right leadership. But this is really another conversation entirely) It has been shown that cognitive diversity – different ways of thinking – makes for faster, better solutions. We are not talking about demographic differences per se, but differences in perspective, experience and interpretation.
So People rightly have roles – that hopefully reflect their specialties, expertise and experience.Those roles, however are not as strictly defined as they once were. The leader of the marketing team may be a contributor to the messaging team. The leader of one research project may be a subject matter expert to another.

The concept of the team has evolved. We need teams to be able to form on demand – the right people, the right resources, the right objectives. Sometimes these teams include people from multiple organizations (think G-20, disaster responders, or any kind of partnership). These teams can last hours, days, months or years – depending on their purpose. They may include 3 or 3,000 people. People may come and go over time. Sometimes this is called “swarming”. I like the term.


Here’s where we’ve seen the most obvious, material change. It is now radically easier to communicate amongst groups of all sizes. Since communication is the foundation of collaboration, coordination and problem solving, the basic tools to enable ad hoc teams to form and be effective are now widely available (if widely different in approach and efficacy).

Seamless group communications relieve the burden of command and control to be the primary form of communication. It also unleashes the ability for observations, expertise and insight to flow throughout the organization, rather than only along lines of command. This is a radical shift that we are only beginning to see the implications and massive benefits from.

Now that we’ve unlocked these abilities, however, we’re finding that the fundamental assumptions of how organizations work have been challenged. What we’re doing now is exploring, learning and refining what the new organization really is. Its pretty cool, we know that.

It does better things. People are more fully in. We can rise to new and different challenges. We waste less. Expertise is more fully leveraged. We see the potential to connect the dots (even if we haven’t completely connected them yet).


The most effective form of 21st century leadership is recursive. That is, leaders  cultivate leaders. Each individual develops their own sense of purpose, that relates to the overall purpose of the organization. And they should be leaders of and for that purpose – that is, shepherding that purpose, orchestrating action, actively learning, and making decisions in accordance with that purpose. Some people call that self actualization. Some call it “employee engagement”  (a term that I already mistrust as a platitude of ineffectual leadership), but the fact is that each individual is the master of their destiny, they are invited to and required to lean-in to the problem, and to bring their best to understanding it and sorting it out. This can be made ever more powerful with the support of processes and systems that take some of the grunt work out of the process, and ensure that what the organization has learned is practiced, but fundamentally this is the non-process work – the discovery and creation of the new, improved, novel and possible.

Much great writing is being done on each of these themes. Umair Haque, Charlene Li, Daniel Pink, John Hagel and John Seeley Brown are just a couple of the scholars and writers that are redefining work and organizations in the 21st century. But this is not the stuff of the ivory tower. this is happening in YOUR business, government, school and community right now. What will you contribute?



  1. Good article and does a nice job of defining what is beginning to happen and how the organization should be. Of course, change is always met with resistance and we see on a daily basis that the commanders and controllers aren’t necessarily the enlightened leaders with the qualities you define in your post. They associate the commanding and the controlling with being a leader and therefore resist pressures, direct or otherwise, to allow others to assume a leadership role within their hierarchy unless and of course it aligns with their objectives and viewpoints.

    That said, the change of an organization is really only possible when the conditions exist and persist to the degree that change cannot be avoided or ignored, hence the successful evolution of communications as you point out. We often hear from the masses at our clients ‘Why can’t we just use Twitter or Facebook at work’, and it’s always about doing things better by tapping into knowledge and experience in faster, more meaningful ways – virtual teaming. When this condition is put into focus for the leaders and when they see how organizations will find a way around the imposed restrictions, that’s when the next evolutionary step starts to occur. The key, in my opinion, is influencing the old guard that this kind of evolution is good for all, and then rewarding all who participate, even the old guard leaders who get behind it. Then creating and endorsing the vehicles for that evolution will allow those who want to innovate and excel emerge as new leaders that aren’t a threat to anyone but a benefit to all. This begins the chain reaction that will culminate is a more responsive and engaged organization.

    Thanks for indulging my lengthy reply, but this is a very important topic that we work with every day.

  2. Agree – the better leaders are getting a clue about this, the emerging leaders are starting from here. What I’m seeing is these days, its leaders who are unsure, or frightened that tend to clamp down on control. Where someone is clamping down – that is both a reflection and a cause for bad things happening.

  3. Great post as usual…you have a knack of consolidating all my thinking of late…

    Yep, unfortunately silos create issues…better put, an unconnected organisation has awareness issues…you can still have silos and be connected.

    eg. today I presented to someone on the Quality team in our Vancouver office on CoPs and somehow we got onto the topic of Lessons Learned and I told them the KM team I’m in is working on a Lessons Learned program. There you go, two units unaware they are working on the same thing. I mentioned that there is a Lessons Learned CoP…voila, bridging silos.

    As Snowden says on silos: “A concern that necessary information is not taken into account…department A is not aware of information held by department B that would make a material difference to a key decision…two people visit the same client unaware of each others actions.”

    Yes, as you say bridging silos across organisations
    I think this is even harder as there are significantly different cultures, agendas and little awareness…which especially fails with an addiction to target/outcomes thinking.
    eg. Child protection ramping up taking children from homes, puts pressure on spaces available on agencies that house kids before they are fostered/adopted…online tools across agencies are needed so we can be pre-emptive, rather than reading it in the paper when it’s too late. Snowden gives a similar example

    I think hierarchy is a necessary network formation to manage work.
    “It helps allocate resources, furnish continuity, assure compliance, and so forth”-John Maloney

    And at the same time we have the informal personal network formation to get work done. So organsiations are already a hybrid (both hierarchy and personal networks), but the difference now is that the personal networks are becoming recognised and allowed to show themselves online…we can now be more aware.

    Being online has an amplifying effect, and yes some middle managers can no longer rely on information control or their status, as now low-level people have access to information and can have influence by repuation (via online social tools). Existing managers need to become equal leaders as they are managers…they have to be coaches ie. manage, but also bring out the best in people…it’s not just about servant leadership…it’s a balance of all these things.

    And having networks online also makes for more transparency, and a co-creative enterprise, where frontline workers are aware of stuff in the early stages, and can have input on change (but not really the decision-making part…not sure how a true democratic org would work). By default the hierachy formation is based on meetings and information is channeled (private or need to know by default)…lots of secret backroom politics that goes with the current designed organisation where silos and people compete, more than collaborate. Will this ever be fully eradicated

    And yes, now we can swarm like never before
    Our global marketing person sends out an email a week asking 8000 people if anyone has a specific expertise for a particular job. But now with our CoPs I’m seeing marketing visit CoPs to ask this question. Imagine if we had online social networks and profiles.

    Everyone has expertise beyond their job title, and now this can be seen.

    So…if we can have this ambient awareness…then it follows when there is a task, the network will buzz and the right experts will turn up, solve the problem and disband…..wow, that’s effective…with little centralised coordination, if any. Something is solved even before the hierarchy would notice it as a problem…we can become an adaptable and resilient organisation now.

    As you know Dave Snowden refers to these swarm groups as crews, and Verna Allee calls them value networks.

    But we need organisational re-design for this to work, as we are all in teams that pay to have us in their team…so how is a manager able to pass on the cost to another manager for you to work for them for a little while.

    “…businesses don’t know how not to pass a local cost along to the the whole organization since everyone has to justify the way the allowed funds are used…businesses don’t understand free across its departments.”
    – Bertrand Duperrin

    Will we move into a a role-based organisation where we freelance and don’t have line managers, but instead managers of the tasks you are on…almost like everything you do in the organisation is a project. I think we need a balance, but watch out for the numerati (big brother swarming…eeek!!)

    As you allude to it all comes down to awareness and communication, and we need online personal networks to complement or bridge silos.

    But rather than the sender and receive model, it’s the publish (post) and subscribe or follow model.

    A person or team may know which other people or groups need to know what they are doing, but they can’t possibly know who of the 8000 people in an organisation need to know. Email doesn’t cut it (email is the sender/receiver model). Now the onus is upto the person or the team to know what’s going on elsewhere.
    As long as people and teams are narrating their work ie. doing tasks, sharing experiences, and asking questions online, then others can tap into this and be ambiently aware. This way we have a return to observable work, which we lost when we went digital and geographically dispersed. ie a return to making 8000 people operate like an office of 8 people. ie in an office of 8 people you can’t help but be aware of everyone’s work in progress

    A couple of posts I have read of late that resonate your post are:

    The second era of the enterprise

    We need to change our definition of productive (this talks about the true essense of what teams are capable of)

    Some more links as usual:

    Recognise silo bridge walkers in performance evaluations

    Collaboration built into structures and compensation

    Transaction costs and resource allocation

    What gets measured determines what gets done

    Hive around problems or hierarchy or both

    Less fires with enterprise 2.0

    Non-commissioned work – 20pc – cognitive surplus – knowledge sharing

  4. holy cow, john – you always honor me with these great responses to what I write. We should pull all these references together into something more durable. Thanks, as ever for your insight.

    I think the true connect the dots starts to happen when the work we do is indexed (as it is in OTSW), and then we’re given “recommended reading” and recommended searches and colleagues. These aren’t the only answers, of course, but they chip away at the problem.

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