Social evolution

As I get older, I get increasingly to a functionalist position on the world around me. That the social structures and constructs that we see around us are there through a process of evolution and serve some sort of positive benefit because otherwise they would have fallen foul of natural selection.

Sometimes this can seem counter-intuitive; crime, for example, has a positive benefit in allowing the vast majority of us to know clearly the boundaries of things that are wrong – a world without law-breaking would probably be a world without laws, not one without crime.

When I look at organisations, I seem to see an inexorable move away from structures based on professional expertise. The boundaries by which we define organisations seem to be caught in a previous age, and their utility is becoming less and less.

I had the privilege yesterday to spend my time working with a group of Market Insight professionals from a very broad set of organisations. The challenges that they are facing seem in many ways to be linked to a sense of purpose: what the heck is “insight”, and why should a single operational part of an organisation have sole responsibility for it?

Organising an organisation by specialism –  sales, marketing, operations, production, HR, Finance, IT, legal and so on – is decreasing in function. If that sounds outlandish, remember that most manufacturing organisation moved from specialism-focus to product-focus at the beginning of the last century with the advent of the production line.

And today, with matrix management and project-centric management the norm rather than the exception, we’ve implicitly acknowledged the passing of professional specialism. The creation of new divisions like “digital” or “innovation” – at their core, multi-disciplinary activities – again implicitly  acknowledges that modern organisations need to have a design based on the things that people are doing, not the skills that they collectively have in common.

With the ways in which we can communicate and collaborate (and the breaking down of 9-5 “in the office” through flexible working patterns) the big benefit of specialist operating divisions, communities of practice, becomes lessened dramatically too. Do I gain more professionally (and does my organisation gain more) by surrounding myself with colleagues who have skills rather than necessarily activity in common?

This isn’t going to happen overnight. Our professional structures are so ingrained, that it will be at an evolutionary rather than revolutionary pace that change will permeate; some of the memes (like matrix management) are already in place; there are some mutations that will probably wither (looking at you, Holocracy).

How to prepare? I’ve heard a lot in recent years about “T-shaped” workers: people with a strong expertise (the down stroke of the T) but with a breadth of knowledge and experience (the horizontal stroke). I personally am hedging more on being “comb-shaped” – many more areas of domain knowledge, and enough understanding to be able to bring in an expert where necessary. The irony that because of follicle challenge I haven’t used a comb in many years isn’t lost…

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