Traditionally hierarchical and silo’ed structures are simply too cumbersome to deal with the modern imperatives of flexibility, integration and agility. Regular and transparent communication, of both the formal and informal kind, is generally lacking. This stifles innovation. Ask just about any person who works for a large corporate environment about the structure of their organisation. The chances are extremely good that you will not get a straight answer. This is not because they are avoiding the subject, but rather because the structure is not transparent to them. Ask more than one person and you are likely to get conflicting responses.
Matrix and other alternative structures have been instigated in companies to try and improve upon the inflexible, disconnected and opaque nature of these traditional structures and have proved useful at certain levels. The challenge remains that control structures continue to be extremely hierarchical in nature. But why is this problematic for innovation?
Innovation, inevitably, requires an organisation to change. Whether minor and incremental adjustments to the status quo, or a major and radical deviation from the norm, companies are required to change their modus operandi more and more often and in larger and larger increments to remain competitive. The traditional organisational structure is founded in an environment where success is achieved through:
These structures can be highly bureaucratic, slow to react, and lacking in connectedness between business units. Clearly, this is in stark contrast to the new imperatives for organisational success – flexibility, integration and agility. But, do these 3 attributes alone ensure competiveness? While they would support innovation, companies also need to be efficient in their current operations – their stream of revenue and immediate survival. Delivering value more cost effectively than the competition is vital. This requires “rigorous structures” that can be in direct conflict with the imperatives for innovation. Managing a production line for quality and efficiency and managing innovation share few similarities.
An ambidextrous organisation is therefore required – one in which operations and innovation can coexist. A mechanism that we use to describe how these conflicting activities can coexist, or rather flourish, is presented in the Viable Systems Model of Stafford Beer.
Born in London in 1926, Beer was a theorist, consultant and professor in the fields of operational research and cybernetics. He was however best known for his application of cybernetics to organisational management, defining cybernetics as “the science of effective organisation”. It is in the works “Brain of the Firm” (first published in 1972, significantly extended in 1981), “The Heart of Enterprise” (1979) and “Diagnosing the System for Organizations” (1985) that Beer formulated and applied his Viable Systems Model. The basis for the model was established through Beers study of the human form in which he identified 5 primary sub-systems (see table and figure below). Beer postulates that these systems are fundamental to any higher-level system interacting with a complex environment – such as an organisation – if it is to be a viable (sustainable) system.
|Human System||Organisational System|
|System 1||The muscles and organs – performing the primary activities||Operations – Primary activities, operations, project teams, quasi-autonomous|
|System 2||The nervous system – connecting and stabilising the activity of the muscles and organs||Connection – Communication, conflict resolution, stabilisation|
|System 3||The base brain – overseeing and optimising the interactions between the muscles and organs||Cohesion – Internal regulation, optimisation, synergy|
|System 4||The mid brain – providing a connection to the outside world through the senses||Intelligence – Forward planning, strategy, innovation|
|System 5||The higher brain – representing the final decision making, identity and values of the human||Policy – Ultimate authority, governance, identity|
The intention of this article is not to reproduce the material. It is to (briefly) demonstrate that the VSM offers a solution to the challenge of organisational ambidexterity – creating an environment in which innovation and operations can flourish simultaneous.
At the core, the VSM states that each of the 5 sub-systems needs to be functioning properly and be in balance with its environment for the system as a whole to be viable. Further, from the diagram below, it is clear that the structure is a self-replicating one similar in concept to Mandelbrot’s fractals. Viable systems therefore exist within viable systems – known as recursion – as a mechanism for dealing with complexity and to ensure a certain degree of autonomy. This principle of recurring self-organisation is crucial to ensuring the desired level of flexibility and agility required for modern competitiveness.
In addressing the need for organisational ambidexterity, the VSM diagram below depicts the connections that exist between innovation (part of Intelligence, System 4) and operations (System 1) and the “positioning” of each. Through recursion, each business unit essentially has its own Intelligence function, providing forward planning, strategic direction and innovation for that unit in the context of its specific business. The higher-level innovation function is closely linked to this function and provides a perspective that is outside of the specific business of that unit. This combined top-down and bottom-up approach to innovation supports the need for consistent incremental improvement to the existing business to maintain competitiveness within a market and the occasional radical change to create new businesses and markets to survive over the long term.
This article concludes with the following practical implications for structuring innovation within the organisation:
By Heinz Essman, contributing editor, South Africa