Distributed Responsibility and Organization
Leadership in the post-modern, network style organization is dispersed throughout the organization.
While modern organizations tended to operate with one singular leader or source of authority, in the new organization, authority is distributed. The organization is not held together by chains-of-command and reporting structures, but rather by a shared mission, vision, and norms that are enforced more from the group than from one individual.
In their groundbreaking analysis of network organizations, Brafman and Beckstrom state, “In today’s world if you put people into an open system, they will want to contribute.”
This distribution is not just a leadership transition, but also a structural one.
If the modern organization had one central location and focus of operation, then the postmodern organization contains multiple seats of power and influence.
The key philosophy in this transition is that the critical knowledge and information needed for the organization to be successful is located at the edge of the organization and not at the center. The center becomes a means of communicating, distributing, and re-distributing the knowledge back to the edges of the organization.
Draper Fisher Jurvetson, one of the world’s most successful venture capital firms, models this principle well as it has forty-two smaller offices around the globe and seventy-one partners (numbers unheard of for venture capital firms) instead of one or two centralized headquarters.
When knowledge is placed at the edge of the organization, it gives the organization greater ability to adjust when trends and changes come because the fringes of the organization usually encounter them first. Inevitably, this promotes a sense of localism in organizations that adopt this mentality. Other examples of this development are in the popular Internet company, Ebay.
Some Case Studies
Ebay is an example of a polycentric organization with multiple nodes of authority.
The financial processes of the company are centralized for the proper security reasons. However, the customer’s experience of Ebay is a decentralized experience as the authority is located in the community that uses Ebay by their ratings of one another. The centralization and decentralization work alongside one another.
Toyota is another organization that has developed strength in the area of poly-centralization. They decentralize their process enough to engender creativity in their workers, but they are structured enough to ensure consistency. The beauty of continual decentralization is that there are no barriers or limits to where the organization or movement may go.
However, the downside is that it may also not go anywhere at all. Hence, the potential power of a well-balanced, polycentric organization.
Catalysts and Teams
If modern organizations were dominated by the CEO mentality, catalysts drive post-modern organizations. Catalysts operate within an organizational environment by pulling together the various strands of involvement and fostering the development of relationships, often around a collective mission or vision.
Catalysts rarely operate with any positional authority, but their authority comes from their ability to activate movement in a new direction. In addition, catalysts often shift their focus from organization to organization or initiative to initiative within an organization. Their role is to get new activity started and then move out of the way if they are no longer helpful.
The most important tool catalysts have is reminding the other members of the organization about the vision and ideology that brings all of them together and showing each part of the movement how they benefit from participation.
Furthermore, if the modern organization operated primarily on the ability of one person to make critical decisions and on the basis of an individual’s being responsible for one aspect of a job. The assembly line is the classic mental image for the individualism of the modern organization.
However, in today’s work environment, the primacy of the individual is giving way to the primacy of the team. A variety of factors have led to this transition: first, the increasing complexity of the issues that workers must deal with today; second, the growing number of people that are engaged in “creative” work or as Drucker calls the “knowledge worker”; third, the recognition of greater inter- connectivity among various disciplines; and, fourth, technological advances making communication easier.
Malcolm Gladwell, in his best seller The Tipping Point, attributes to the Law of the Few the success of several movements. His belief is that movement type dynamics take place through the leadership of a handful of exceptional people.
Given the constantly changing environment and the reality of discontinuous change in the world today, flexibility and adaptability are absolutely critical. This leads organizational consultants such as Jim Collins to suggest that getting the right people on the bus of the organization is more important than getting them in the right seat. Collins states that the right seat might change, but the right person can change seats.
Also, in more mission-oriented organizations (as opposed to financially-driven organizations) the flexibility of networks is demonstrated in the midst of crisis. Often, when they are attacked, they can easily disburse and take on new forms in new locales. However, this level of flexibility and adaptability also has negative consequences because it does show that the organization is more fragile.
Vision and Meaning
Choice is a predominant word that could describe the experience of the majority of western society today. More choices are available than ever in just about every segment of society, and this trend has been growing since the Post-World War II era.
Choice relates most specifically to time and effort in terms of organizational loyalty in this post-industrial, post-organizational world. Employers are finding it harder than ever to attract and retain quality talent. The reasons range across the board, but, inevitably, they relate to individuals wanting more independence, more flexibility in work hours and locations, and more varied experiences on the job.
Due to the ever-developing economic realities of our time, the financial reasons that once kept individuals dedicated to organizations and in stable locations for long periods of time are no longer.
What, then, causes people to participate in organizations today, especially voluntary or not-for-profit organizations where the allure of economic reward is minimal? The answer is vision and the opportunity for meaning making.
Working with church leaders to develop new expressions of Christian community is the passion of Chris’s life. In addition to his role as National Director of Fresh Expressions US, he serves with the Baptist General Association of Virginia the area of church planting and serves as the Director & Organizational Architect for Ecclesia, a national network of missional churches. Previously, he served as pastor of New Life Christian Fellowship, a large university congregation in Blacksburg, Virginia. Chris holds a D.Min. in Missional Church Leadership from Fuller Theological Seminary. He lives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania with wife Rachel, daughter Elliana and son Jase. ￼