Keeping it small

Organizations exist to grow. (It’s why we make the transition from being a solo practitioner to thinking about working with others, and, of course, organizations create room for newcomers to learn “on the job”, making them ideal for new entrants to the workplace.)

Yet as organizations increase in size, they hit tipping points.

We talk over and over again about how dynamic and exciting start up culture is. I can tell you that you see the same in long-standing charitable and service organizations that are still small. There’s an openness of communication, a “do it, try it” attitude, and a lack of boundary-guarding that is refreshing.

One well-known tipping point is hitting the so-called “Dunbar number”: the largest group where everyone can still know everyone else well enough to trust them in all cases. This is usually cited as 150, but it actually in observation ranges from around 130 to a little over 200 at most.

That number is for the organization as a whole — all functions, all departments. It need not be all locations, though, as W L Gore & Associates have proven with their expansion since starting in 1955. (Gore splits facilities as the Dunbar number approaches, duplicating them, amoeba style, then each is run in a highly independent manner, turning them continuously into small organizations.)

While technology can help somewhat with communications and interchange — and indeed, organizations should be laced with instant messaging, wikis, blogs and forums, and other forms of sharing than email, shared drives and content managers alone — the reality is that purposes must be linked as well for true trust to emerge. Otherwise what you have is really like the public Internet: you may have lots of “friends” and you may even poke, post, pin, tweet, comment, and like, RT or +1 assiduously, but it’s often at a remove.

When thinking about the enterprise’s portfolio, therefore, those architecting future IT should constantly be looking for ways to make the elements scale down to support smaller units — making it easier for the enterprise to experiment with stand-alone operations, hived-off units, and the like. Let the technology handle the roll ups and control mechanisms necessary for headquarters, but keep an entire range of useful options scaled to the size of the small.

This is, in many ways, the exact reverse of what we have been doing for the past twenty years, with ever-larger packages covering off ever more functions. That was a good way to cope with the challenges of that era.

The era we’ve been in for the past several years, however, is not a “one size fits all” era. Enterprises will need to become much more adaptable, flexible, reconfigurable to thrive and prosper over the two decades ahead.

IT therefore needs to make sure it can provision accordingly. Setting the stage now, so that the option becomes real, would be a good first step. (Otherwise you can be sure the fragmentation will be driven by ad hoc measures using software-as-a-service solutions selected without any concern for how the roll up and reintegration will be handled!)

IT has wanted to be at the business strategy table for years. To be there as more than a note-and-order taker, you have to bring things to it.

This would be a very good contribution.


About passionateobserver

I am a passionate observer of our society, the economy, and politics. Mostly I don't like much of what I see, so I write as a concerned citizen. To the fray, I bring a background in the philosophy of history, a lifetime's reading, a work history in information technology management, consulting and education.
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