LONDON – I’ve had several intriguing conversations recently with fellow CommScrummer Dan Gray as well as some high-profile people in the innovation and sustainability areas. Adam Hibbert and I also traded comments on a recent CommScrum post.
The gist of it has been that the reason we form companies/organisations is that putting different skills together is theoretically a better way to do things thatn operating independently. This idea is so core to commerce that Adam Smith’s quote about the division of labour in pin manufacturing adorns the £20 note.
But a lot of us are beginning to believe that organisational silos – with deep irony – are presenting a robust challenge to this whole assumption. Insourcing, outsouring, rightsourcing - the pendulum is always swinging back and forth as businesses struggle to get the mix right. But at the same time they don’t ever actually challenge their own fundamental structures. Some companies (GORE TEX, Patagonia and doubtless others) have started thinking differently with some success.
Elizabeth Ross Kantor (see blog comment here) has a new book out, which I haven’t bought or read (ahem) but it has been summarised as follows:
1. An enterprise has to be defined in terms of how it serves society; it must integrate all employees and stakeholders around this purpose.
2. Innovation is both the way you make money and how you serve society. The more you innovate to solve social problems, the more profitable and sustainable you will be. This is your innovation advantage.
3. The ecosystem around a company is key to its success. This is what Kanter calls the partnership advantage. No company can succeed without being part of a network of other companies and organizations.
4. The last point, according to Kanter, is, in fact, the first one: It’s about people. A key dimension of the social and business changes we see today concerns the value shift.
So the question is – can a different organisational structure be developed? One where juvenile turf protection (by not so juvenile 40-something Directors seeking to fatten their positions, not to mention pensions) is minimised and a more stakeholder-centred, issue-centred, and dare I say sustainability-centred model is at play? One where Brand won’t “block” a Human Resource initiative on the principle that they “own” brand?
While I have a deep belief that we need to solve the world’s sustainability issues at a very deep and human level, I also am pragmatic enough (or maybe read too much John Locke) to believe that appealing to people’s better nature won’t do it, particularly when trying to influence those with influence – e.g. CEOs and political leaders etc. Given the choice between saving a hummingbird species or pocketing an extra £1 million I wouldn’t bank on the humming bird, I am saddened to say. But at the same time, “good” sustainability thinking – that is, seeing sustainability as far more than just “green” stuff, and seeing it as a way to eliminate waste in the system (from supply chain to environmental impact to carbon footprint to talent), is all about plain good business.
Perhaps this would be a good session to consider for CommScrum’s live event planned for January 2011. If so, dibs.