“Two monks were arguing about the temple flag waving in the wind.  One said, “The flag moves.”  The other said, “The wind moves.” They argued back and forth but could not agree.  The Sixth Ancestor said, “Gentlemen! It is not the wind that moves; it is not the flag that moves; it is your mind that moves.”

Huineng, founder of the Zen school

Is technological innovation  changing organizations, or are changing organizational structures driving more innovative uses of technology in your workplace?  When it comes to thinking about changing organizational designs, where is your mind moving?

At Organimi we are interested in organizations – the people who power them, and the evolving workplace structures, processes and relationships that result when they come together to connect, communicate and collaborate in the workplace.

We recently announced the Organimi Version 4 release, and we now have close to 20,000 organizations and 500,000 people using Organimi  We hope you’ll check it out!

We’re interested in your feedback because we want to ensure that Organimi’s org charts, photoboards, directories and other organizational design tools are robust enough to meet these evolving needs — simply, easily and cost-effectively.

But to do our job well, we also need to think about how organizations are changing, and where they are likely to go next…as ideas of workplaces and work itself evolve, with more and more people working remotely, and virtual teams forming on a project by project basis incorporating personnel from “inside” the organizational firewall with a growing body of “best of breed” freelancers contracted to meet specific skills gaps, budgets and / or time constraints.

Making Sense of Sense-Making

How are remote teams and virtual organizations the same as their classical counterparts…with their “traditional” centralized organizational structures?  How will the org charts for virtual teams, and virtual team structures themselves, be different?

More generally, how will these virtual entities behave, learn and act as they become a more prevalent – and perhaps the dominant – organizational form in coming decades?

This is one of the topics of study of organizational information theory which builds upon general systems theory, and focuses on the complexity of information management within an organization. The theory addresses, among other things, how organizations reduce equivocality, or uncertainty through a process of information collection, management and use — all of which is based on interactions among people.

We recently encountered a reference to Karl Weick, an American organizational theorist noted for introducing the notions of “loose coupling”, “mindfulness”, and “sense making” into organizational studies. 

Weick saw organizations as “sense making” structures, enabling individuals through their gathering, processing, management and use of information inputs, in a loosely coupled fashion, to align the organization’s internal and collective abstraction of reality with the actual world they operate in.

“Mindfulness” – notable among so called “high-reliability organizations” – described the process of assessing current expectations, continuously improve those expectations based on new experiences, and implementing those expectations to improve the current situation into a better one, while achieving high levels of consistency, repeatability and reliability.

Sense_MakingHow do these concepts apply when more and more interactions are happening remotely, across increasingly disconnected teams?

How will sense making “work” for increasingly virtual teams?

Balancing With The Oscillation Principle

In Combining Virtual and Face-to-Face Work, her recent Harvard Business Review blog, Nancy Dixon writes about best practices in integrating virtual and face to face work environments.  She highlights the need to synthesize the best of traditional and virtual workplace environments and tools.

She is describing the creation of what we at Organimi like to refer as “technology enabled workplace collaboration systems” based on tools like video conferencing and shared ideation, decision making and problem solving systems, with face to face interactions focussed on a subset of important organizational decision-making activities, where needed, to enable the collective sensemaking role Karl Weick would have referred to in his organizational design studies.

When we shift our gaze away from the wind and the flag, and think inside ourselves, these changing capabilities become readily apparent.  The technology innovations engine underlying the tools of youth their “elders” see as of questionable utility – think SnapChat, Instagram, What’sApp, Pinterest – will be the business collaboration platforms of the future.

I was reminded of this tendency/cycle/trend over a decade ago in a pre-text world of internet browsers when my then teenage nieces were carrying on upwards of 20 banal instant messaging interactions at a time…a skill I thought was largely useless….until I saw chat support windows appearing as call center tools everywhere….followed shortly thereafter by remote help desk tools with their easy just say yes opt in screens  built on terminal emulation enginethat would permit support desk users to actually take control of users entire computing environment…in the process erasing another mental barrier to the outer boundaries of an organization’s computing network.

Chat_SupportDixon notes that companies struggle with determining the best combination of virtual and face to face work environments, arguing that workers should not be forced to choose between the need for autonomy and the need for purpose that inspires and unites them.  She promotes what she refers to as an “oscillation principle,” which allows you to tap the best attributes of both virtual work and face-to-face environments.

Isolate to Concentrate; Convene to Collaborate

Dixon summarizes the strengths of combining and balancing the strengths of remote and direct workplace interaction as follows:

Virtual work allows for:

  • Drawing on talent globally
  • Reducing office costs and other operating expenses
  • Providing greater autonomy to workers
  • Decentralized, more responsive decision making and operations
  • Improved, faster customer service
  • Higher levels of employee satisfaction
  • Enhanced opportunities for work-life balance

Convening face to face interactions fosters:

  • Strong commitment to jointly made decisions
  • Shared understanding of goals and a larger purpose
  • The ability for components, developed independently, to smoothly come together into a meaningful whole
  • Diverse and innovative solutions to complex issues
  • A sense of community, cohesion, and belonging

She describes a culture of fostering collective sense making through

1) actively seeking members’ input into the agenda,

2) abandoning hierarchy and giving decision-making power to the group,

3) whiteboarding to jointly design features and build group ownership of ideas,

4) preserving social time to help team members build important relationships, and

5) daily virtual meetings so everyone is aware of what everyone else is doing.

According to Dixon, using the right medium plays a significant part in this process.  Email works best for requesting or passing on factual information.  Teleconferencing is typically necessary for a problem solving task, such as deciding who should represent the company a client meeting.  A face-to-face meeting might be needed for a brainstorming discussion about ways to alter a product’s design.

And so the laundry list begins.  What about other tools like mobile messaging and collaboration platforms, remote training & learning systems, social sharing sites, cloud based project and process management tools, centralized code and project repositories…you name it.  The categories are just now opening up.  Not to mention Organimi’s cloud based org charts themselves!!

As Dixon notes how frequlently your employees need to come together also depends on the type of work they are doing, including considerations like task interdependence — or the extent to which one person’s work affects what other team members do — and complexity. The greater the interdependence and complexity, the more frequently collective sensemaking meetings need to occur.

Clearly there is a lot to think about for organization information theorists and the rest of us in the years ahead.  But Dixon views the future optimistically.

“The more virtual organizations become, the greater the need for oscillating between being remote and coming together on a regularly scheduled basis. I can conceive of a time when employees will conduct their individual work where it is most convenient to do so. They will come together to innovate, share new experiences, understand issues they are all are facing, solve problems, and develop strategy. There will be an understanding that when they convene it is to make use of all the knowledge and analytical ability that is in the room. Everything else will be effectively conveyed virtually. The normal way of working will be: isolate to concentrate, convene to collaborate”

As Karl Weick once noted “organizations are presumed to talk to themselves over and over to find out what they are thinking.”  There is no doubt that the types of conversations – and the tools used to converse – are changing in important ways.

To use the Zen reference that started this article, whether the technology driving this change is the wind and the organizational structure is the flag, or vice versa, there is no doubt that the way people think about their workplaces and work are changing.

Business leaders, HR professionals and technology innovators interested in issues like organizational design innovation, employee engagement in remote work environments, and creating effective “sense making” structures that can function in a competitive business environment with increasingly heterogenous workplace structures, need to think about these trends.

At Organimi, we hope to be part of this conversation for many years to come.

As always, thanks for reading.

The Organimi Team