Organisations and their Environments

organisationenvironmentThe notion of organisations as complex adaptive systems enables us to see more clearly the individual, the teams and the organisation itself within the frame of a larger ‘whole’ and, therefore, to appreciate that in any one given situation there are a multiplicity of variables that may or may not have an impact upon the work to be done. Such variables frequently form the case studies of the McKinsey Quarterly or the Harvard Business Review. Leadership is a particular favourite, Learning and Performance Management is another, Reward and Recognition is a third. Follow the links for more in depth posts on these topics.

As of yet, we are still to define a context – an environment – in which this all can take place. This is not a new debate in itself, but taking it out of the hands of the Real Estate and Operations teams in order to understand it as a potential source of major competitive advantage is a relatively new concept: The idea that it may also provide your organisation with a greater degree of ‘Possibility Space’, resulting not simply in success in the market place but also within the organisational community. Transformation, indeed.

Outside our individual perspective and team perspectives the next cognitive filter is that of the workspace.

The Old (Built) World

Let us cast an eye back through history briefly. The organisations of the past reflected very much the formal societal structure of the time. All too often they were ‘hierarchical monoliths’ where the agenda was set by top management and implemented through the ranks by a series of management levels responsible for ‘controlling’ the organization. Both physically and metaphorically, the top management placed themselves away from the sharp end of their business, straying from the office’s ‘executive suite’ often only when the necessity arose.

Decision-making was seen as the domain of management with little input from others. The workforce was deemed to be motivated largely by money and little else. With the advent of organizational psychologists and sociologists and behavioural scientists in particular, it became more evident that such a rigorous hierarchical approach was an ineffective way of running a business.

The division between management and employee pervaded beyond the physical. It set the whole nature of corporate culture. The self-imposed isolation that management sought proved a huge barrier to collaboration, organizational learning and flexible, adaptive practices. What happened at the top was pervasive throughout the whole of the organisation itself. Often we see that humans are imitating beings: We tend to take on role models and behavioural models that suit our world and conform, so reinforcing non-collaborative, ‘silo-mentality’ behaviour. This is a self-reinforcing loop; a downward spiral of non-information sharing, mis-trust and non-alignment of purposefulness.

It would be good to think this was all in the past, but in reality we do still live in an era when the division between management and employee is the norm. Although corporate cultures increasingly tend to encourage openness and honesty, there is much room for improvement. In fact, the majority of organizations around the globe still conform to this type of monolithical structure. And this type of sectarian workspace design is still prevalent.

The New (Built) World

Perhaps one of the greatest inciting events workplace design was the advent of the ‘information age’: New forms of enterprise emerged, and with them new kinds of workers and new styles of workplace. We were presented with a notion of alternative office spaces containing what seemed like elements of bar culture, primary school, artistic workshops, sound studios and so on, where the cool kids got to play as they worked. For many this was considered a frivolous exercise in an attempt to ‘out-cool’ the competition but others took a more open mind, asking what they could learn from this revolution and how it could benefit their own business, an inquiry that led – for a small minority – to the conclusion that alternative environments may in fact be necessary in order to build and maintain a creative competitive advantage in today’s world.

Other pressures, too, have contributed to the shift towards reconsideration of how our corporate buildings support the work done therein. Technology, in particular, has fuelled this area of debate. Workers are increasingly mobile; the advent of laptops and telecommunications means that teleworking is now a reality; in fact the number of teleworkers worldwide is expected to hit 200 million by 2020 and many knowledge workers rate the ability to telework – at least partially – as a high factor in their employment choices. There are obvious implications of this trend, from a practical reassessment of the building capacity required and how it is used, through to revision of leadership models.

The workspace is possibly the most liberating enabler an organisation has at its fingertips.

Of all the tools an organisation has at hand day in, day out, the work environment is the most prevalent. An organisation may spend millions every year designing, building, implementing or custom-ordering Information Technology systems but fail to see that outside itself – that is the agents of the system – its potentially biggest liability and source of both productivity and efficiency (as architects have been crying out for years) lies with the design of the physical environment in which these agents (co)operate.

Attitudes are changing, slowly, but the connection between the workspace and organisational learning, play, creativity and sustainable innovation is still not always made. One reason for this is because we need to draw on more refined principles and ideas of architecture, a discipline not generally understood by business professionals and one which we will explore in subsequent posts.