Building collaborative organizations

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THERE ARE NEW AND INCREASING DEMANDS on today’s
organizations. Connectivity, uncertainty, and speed combine to
make work environments more complex and more demanding. Connectivity
or “the death of distance” (Cairncross, 1997) means that organizations (and all
of their current and potential competitors) has instant access to customers, to
colleagues, and to highly sophisticated informationabout their performance.
Uncertainty means that organizations are required to create increasingly sophisticated
products, delivered to increasingly demanding customers, across continually
re-forming boundaries. In addition, managers must stay alert for the
technological changes that will make products obsolete, services substandard,
or prices noncompetitive. Everyone now faces a speedrequirement created by
a dizzying rate of unpredictable, discontinuous change.
More is known about an organization’s customers, employees, and competitors
than ever before. Tools exist that do much of the routine, back-breaking, mindnumbing
work required in the past. Highly sophisticated knowledge of what
costs what, what makes money, and exactly where the best sources of profits
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lie drives focused decisions. On the other hand, global competition, fueled by
disparate labor costs, creates intense and escalating competitive pressure on
many organizations.
The accelerating rate of change for products and the increasing variety of
products offered result in complex and changing requirements both for people
and for systems. In addition, customers,suppliers, and technological innovations
change at breathtaking speeds and require quick responses in order to
protect relationships or competitive positions. Clearly, organizational life today
is unpredictable and likely to become more so.
All of this puts new pressure on employees and on traditional ways of managing
them. Organizations expect employees to have the skill, confidence, andcommitment to use the plethora of tools and information available and to advocate
for change when necessary. Structures are required that can deploy workers
to meet shifting demands and priorities without the upset and delays
historically associated with change. Managers expect workers to work together,
often with changing collections of colleagues, to accomplish complex, demanding
work. Theyexpect their members to accomplish tasks that require a sophisticated
understanding of the tradeoff decisions inherent in their businesses,
tasks that require almost constant learning of new skills, and work that requires
the trust, respect, and commonality of purpose necessary for cooperative effort.
In short, the structure and people who make up today’s organizations must be
able to jointogether to accomplish complex, demanding work. New ways of
thinking about how to structure and manage the people and the components
of today’s organization are required.
The designs used for organizations in the past cannot be used given the
demands on today’s, much less tomorrow’s, organizations. Anumber of innovative
designs have emerged in recent years to address these new demands,
including:flexible organization; high performance work organization; new
design plants, self-managing organization; virtual organization; reengineered
corporation; and ambidextrous organization. John Child and Rita Gunther
McGrath (2001) identified four common characteristics across these types of organizations:
interdependence, disembodiment, velocity, and power. The new forms
have been designed toovercome the formality and rigidity of hierarchical,
bureaucratic organizational structures and to enable more creative, emergent,
and spontaneous responses to problems and opportunities. Cross-functional
integration, flattened hierarchy, and empowerment are essential. Such design
changes increase the adaptability of the organization, but only when accom-
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