The Organization of Tomorrow will be …

Ten hours into a 16-hour flight. In two days, I’ll be delivering a workshop in Malaysia for a group of mid-market CEOs (the EO Chapter of Malaysia) and for AIG Malaysia. I should be dead tired but I can’t sleep because I am so inspired/angry/committed, having just written another chapter of my next book.

I’ve mashed 90 notes collected over the last two years into one chapter and after reviewing all of the notes, I think they all come down to this conclusion:

We are about to experience an historical shift in how organizations organize, and the organization of the future will empower intrapreneurship.

Over the past 10,000 years or so, humans have organized themselves based on certain metaphors or perspectives:

  • Tribes: First, as nomad hunter-gatherers, we organized as tribes.
  • Kingdoms/hierarchies: After we learned to farm and had to move around less, we established larger, stable organizational units. To keep them together, we created hierarchies usually led by someone (king, pharaoh) who drew authority from having some kind of connection to a god.
  • Organisms: The term “organization” comes from the same root as “organism,” and this metaphor became the dominant one as our human organizational structures became yet larger. Organisms are composed of organs, each with a specialized function. So we framed our organizations around specialization.
  • Factories: During the Industrial Revolution, we realized the power of not only specialization but of the production line, so we began to think of our organizations as a chain of activities (the “value chain”). Each person not only plays their role (as in the organism frame) but also plays it at the right time (their place in the chain).
  • Computers: Maybe 20 years ago the metaphor starting shifting toward that of a computer where rules and cultural norms were represented by programming, institutional memory represented by the hard drive, management bandwidth by working memory, etc.

But we are now starting to see a new paradigm emerge. We need the specialization of organisms less because we can automate much of the activities that make specialization valuable and get easy access to the knowledge that specialization implies. We use factory lines less because people can organize themselves spontaneously when and as needed and we less often have to take action at precisely the right time thanks to asynchronous communication (think about communicating via Facebook rather than telephone). And artificial intelligence and automation are removing many of the issues that the “computer” metaphor helped us solve.

What comes next does not have a name yet. The military calls it the “team of teams.” Red Hat calls it “the open organization.” I don’t want to name it yet but within the five or so emerging models I have studied, we see three key characteristics. The future organization will be defined by:

  1. Collaboration: Rather than order being given and followed, we will see people engage in cooperation that looks more like collaboration.
  2. Meritocracy: Power will come from the value you create rather than formal or titular power.
  3. Autonomy: We will see people getting to choose which problems to work on, having more freedom in how to solve them, and with time follow the intersection between what their organization needs and their passions inspire.

I, for one, am “bullish” on the future into which my children will eventually … well, I was going to say “work,” but maybe even that word needs to change. My kids collaborating in a meritocracy with autonomy … that vision won’t let me sleep.