When considering various branches of the military, they clearly represent the archetypal hierarchical organization. Working from top down, (or bottom up if preferred), military ranks identify where individuals appear within a hierarchical command and control structure.

Yet in 2003, when General Stanley McChrystal took over command of the Joint Special Operations Task Force in Iraq, he discovered that the conventional tactics employed by a hierarchical military were ineffective.

Despite General McChrystal’s forces enjoying significant quantitative advantages of personnel, military equipment and training, these proved no match for the speed, agility and adaptability of their foes.
In essence, the structural lag arising from the hierarchical nature of the military was the central reason why they were always playing catch-up in respect of a constantly evolving counterpart.

“Team of Teams”

In his book, “Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World”, General McChrystal outlines how they were forced to adapt the military organization from one of “Command and Control” to a “Team of Teams” as illustrated in the following diagram.

General Stanley McChrystal “Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World”

Suffice it to say that changing the organizational structures allowed General McChrystal’s forces to prevail. There are many worthwhile articles and video presentations about this experience to understand how such an organizational change made all the difference.

So what can we learn from this?

Standing back and looking at this from a non-military perspective, does this not provide echoes of exactly what we see and encounter within organizations every day? Despite notionally hierarchical organizations, work usually takes place ACROSS (or perhaps DESPITE) organizational silos and boundaries.

Whilst organizations have formally declared to operate these hierarchical (or even matrix) structures, the reality is that work happens horizontally ACROSS levels and silos, rather than vertically through the prescribed layers of management.

In these circumstances, how can an organization be efficient when it ACTUALLY functions in a different way to that which it is BELIEVED to operate.

The Wirearchy

Whilst General McChrystal’s “Team of Teams” approach will resonate with many in industry, perhaps the terminology and imagery that I find most compelling is that of Jon Husband who speaks of “The Wirearchy”…

Jon Husband’s “The Wirearchy”

In combining Wire and Hierarchy into a single term, Jon Husband single-handedly evokes the contradiction between how organizations say they work, versus the reality of how workers come together in practice to get work done on a day-to-day basis.  

I have visions of how such a Wirearchy “pokes holes” through even the strongest of organizational silos, in order to accomplish required goals.

So Why Does It Matter for Knowledge Work?

As in the military, whilst we all “salute” the structures of the organizations within which we operate, the reality is that work often takes place despite such structures.

According to Peter Drucker, Knowledge Workers are largely self-managing, and understand their work and outputs better than supervisors and managers do. Hence Knowledge Workers endeavour to get things done irrespective of the organization structures within which they exist.

Organization structures can of course be positive, neutral or negative in respect of how knowledge work takes place within an organization, but surely if there is a choice (or overarching plan), then structures should ideally enhance the knowledge work of an enterprise?

I would suggest that the “Wirearchy” is perhaps the best way to describe the ways in which knowledge work really occurs within many enterprises, perhaps we need to adjust our organizational thinking to reflect such a reality?

“Time, Talent, Energy”

In the book “Time, Talent, Energy” (by Michael Mankins & Eric Garton, Bain & Co) – the key segment of the book centered on Time outlines the problem of “Organizational Drag”, which can account for loss of productivity of 20-25% on average in organizations.

This “Organizational Drag” effect is essentially the inherent “friction” that is created within every organization, whether through its structures, its processes or indeed technology. The more misaligned these are, then undoubtedly the greater the friction or “Organizational Drag” effect that is created.

Remember, that 20-25% is an average effect across companies, so there will be many “laggard” organizations which are experiencing a significantly greater impact in order to yield a typical average at 20-25%!

In Conclusion…

Firstly, modern knowledge work is organized more by “Wirearchy” than hierarchy. The organizational hierarchy is somewhat of a fading notion of how knowledge intensive organizations actually operate, a bit like the leftover vestigial organs within the human body.

Organizations are paying a considerable cost, on average 20%-25% of productive capacity due to “organizational drag” arising from how operations are run. Recovering some of that lost productivity should be a priority for any organization, or have organizations become inured to “organizational drag”, feeling powerless to do anything about it?

Our tools and technologies should reflect the reality of organizational structures, whether we term it “team of teams” or “wirearchy” because that’s what’s going on in the real world…

At NolijWork, such ideas are a key component of how we’re re-imagining Knowledge Work, we invite you to join us on our journey…

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