The 21st-Century Organization

Big corporations must make sweeping organizational changes to get the best from their professionals.

About half a century ago, Peter Drucker coined the term “knowledge worker” to describe a new class of employee whose basic means of production was no longer capital, land, or labor but, rather, the productive use of knowledge. Today, these knowledge workers, who might better be called professionals, represent a large and growing percentage of the employees of the world’s biggest corporations. In industries such as financial services, health care, high tech, pharmaceuticals, and media and entertainment, professionals now account for 25 percent or more of the workforce and, in some cases, undertake most typical key line activities. These talented people are the innovators of new business ideas. They make it possible for companies to deal with today’s rapidly changing and uncertain business environment, and they produce and manage the intangible assets that are the primary way companies in a wide array of industries create value.

Productive professionals make big enterprises competitive, yet these employees now increasingly find their work obstructed. Creating and exchanging knowledge and intangibles through interaction with their professional peers is the very heart of what they do. Yet most of them squander endless hours searching for the knowledge they need — even if it resides in their own companies — and coordinating their work with others.

The inefficiency of these professionals has increased along with their prominence. Consider the act of collaboration. Each upsurge in the number of professionals who work in a company leads to an almost exponential — not linear — increase in the number of potential collaborators and unproductive interactions. Many leading companies now employ 10,000 or more professionals, who have some 50 million potential bilateral relationships. The same holds true for knowledge: searching for it means trying to find the person in whose head it resides, because most companies lack working “knowledge markets.” One measure of the difficulty of this quest is the volume of global corporate e-mail, up from about 1.8 billion a day in 1998 to more than 17 billion a day in 2004. As finding people and knowledge becomes more difficult, social cohesion and trust among professional colleagues declines, further reducing productivity.

A Flawed Organizational Design

Today’s big companies do very little to enhance the productivity of their professionals. In fact, their vertically oriented organizational structures, retrofitted with ad hoc and matrix overlays, nearly always make professional work more complex and inefficient. These vertical structures — relics of the industrial age — are singularly ill suited to the professional work process. Professionals cooperate horizontally with one another throughout a company, yet vertical structures force such men and women to search across poorly connected organizational silos to find knowledge and collaborators and to gain their cooperation once they have been found.

Worse yet, matrix structures, designed to accommodate the “secondary” management axes that cut across vertical silos, frequently burden professionals with two bosses — one responsible for the sales force, say, and another for a product line. Professionals seeking to collaborate thus need to go up the organization before they can go across it. Effective collaboration often takes place only when the would-be collaborators enlist hierarchical line managers to resolve conflicts between competing organizational silos. Much time is lost reconciling divergent agendas and finding common solutions.

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