Tuesday, 17 July 2012

What are the pitfalls of moving away from hierarchy?

What's the best way to organise groups of people?  Experimentally-minded organisations have explored the use of 'autonomous workgroups', where teams are led from within rather than being allocated a supervisor. The psychological benefits are apparent: providing workers with more direct autonomy is well-known to promote motivation. Is the relative rarity of such approaches merely down to inertia within the world of work, or are there some challenges that need consideration? 

In a recent article, Jonas Ingvaldsen and Monica Rolfsen of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology present a case study detailing 'Tools', a Norwegian tool company that decided to move from a traditional foreman situation to a flatter structure, partly led by an organisational and national culture that is sympathetic to labour empowerment. The investigators took a qualitative approach, using interviews and focus groups to gather information from team members over 13 years. They began as a new approach kicked off, where each week a different team member took on a spokesperson role. Then, the  workforce was enthusiastic: 'The flat structure has come to stay. We won’t return to the foreman system, where someone points the finger and tells you what to do.'

Yet eight years later, interviews and discussions revealed several issues. Although members wanted to do good by their team, the transient nature of the spokesperson responsibility made it possible to skimp on more onerous and seemingly less essential activities like information-sharing. Moreover, the fact that the spokesperson role was crafted around the team needs meant that when tensions between teams or functions emerged, there were few formal mechanisms to resolve disputes. Spokespeople were unable to enforce decisions that were individually unpopular but better for the larger system:  'self-management ends up with what is optimal for each individual, and that is comfort' - meaning that products were put together on a schedule that was efficient for the team but was harmful to the inventory management.

Tools switched it up. The new system involved distributed leadership, where managerial responsibilities were unbundled and made the responsibility of different team members. In this '5-M' model, one person would look after Man (eg staffing), another Machine, and so on. While this appears to have had some powerful benefits - Mileu specialists can get together in their M-meeting, and discuss how to improve air quality across the organisation - real-life problems don't always fall neatly into boxes. The interviews revealed concerns that non-essential issues often got kicked from one M to another without resolution. Concrete and immediate problems did tend to get resolved rapidly and effectively, but anything big-picture called on co-ordination that no-one was equipped for.

This case study encapsulates some of the benefits and challenges of non-hierarchical methods within large, complex organisations. Are all members dispositionally suited to taking on leadership duties over their existing work? How can they develop mastery and hence satisfaction for these duties when only practiced one week in six? Are the domains that we carve the world into sufficiently legible to the human users who have to operate with them? Worthwhile questions to help us toward a 21st century approach to the workplace.

ResearchBlogging.orgJonas A Ingvaldsen, & Monica Rolfsen (2012). Autonomous work groups and the challenge of inter-group coordination Human Relations DOI: 10.1177/0018726712448203

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