Ultimate Software's Blog

“Charting” a New Course for the Organization

In the booming postwar Mad Men era, the predominant work structure in American companies was hierarchical. For returning soldiers, this “command-and-control structure” was something they were used to in their military service.

Since the workforce was almost exclusively male, particularly in management roles, this structure conformed closely to their notions of social groupings, which also tend to be hierarchical. Everyone had a specific place in the hierarchy, and implicit rules existed to guide communications and collaborations with others.

In time, this hierarchical structure engendered the development of the “traditional org chart,” in which the relationship between roles and positions in an organization were formulated, based on a company’s financial-accounts structure and its employees’ cost centers. A typical org chart directs how authority and information flows between people. In today’s vastly interconnected global business environment, hierarchical work structures and their unbending progeny, org charts, have very little to do with how how work actually is conducted.

At Ultimate, we believe org charts can serve a larger purpose—helping people connect with others whose skills and interests they share, using visualization to help employees discover and form relationships across the organization, much like a social network, with the individual as the initial point of reference rather than the highest point in the formal hierarchy.

Technologies like social media, artificial intelligence, augmented intelligence, 24-7 mobility, and the cloud have unleashed extraordinary possibilities for people to work better as a group, rather than in rigidly assigned job roles as per the org chart. People can now move fluidly from one assignment to another, organizing around the work that needs to be done, in concert with others engaged with them in the particular task.

This freedom of thought and action is what I refer to as “organizational fluidity,” one of the three components of “Workforce Fluidity.” It recognizes the reality of how work actually gets done, which has little to do with formal organization structures that confine a person’s breadth of talents. Rather, the assignment, creation, and even choice of work is increasingly determined by a person’s competence, curiosity, and ability to effectively collaborate with others in self-organized teams, when the organization is forward-looking enough to recognize the benefits of such a dynamic way of working.

Today’s far-flung global workforce comprises more than just full-time employees, including such non-permanent workers as independent contractors, temps, freelancers, and other contingent workers. These individuals enrich an organization by bringing in specific expertise and new ideas from outside the organization. They help fill skill-set gaps and the temporary void caused by an employee leaving the organization. The irony is that these non-salaried workers have more organizational fluidity, thanks to their flexible and virtual work schedules. In a global workspace with constant connectivity, everyone should have the same.

Imagine when this is indeed the case, as it will soon be. People with wide-ranging skills participate in teams, flowing between initiatives and supervisors to maximize their contributions. No longer is someone with multiple talents restricted to employing a single skill, simply because that’s how the person is defined and subsequently tasked by supervisors. Without a hierarchical work structure, the value of everyone’s big brains and breadth of experience comes together in a brainstorming whirlwind of ideas, concepts, discussions, and debates to grow the business.

Already this is occurring in a growing number of companies, many of them startup enterprises where workers have the opportunity to fluidly move from one project to another, one task to another, even one job role to another, and then back again. Each time they make these journeys, they enliven parts of their multifold talents that otherwise would have remained dormant, while learning new skills from others in the collaborative work environment. In such organizations, employee engagement is not a problem.

Small wonder that many younger employees are demanding a fluid organizational structure and culture as a condition of employment. If you don’t hire them, the competition will. Timing is everything in life and business.

In my next blog, I’ll dive into a related form of fluidity bubbling to the top in many companies—job fluidity, embracing how work actually is accomplished today. In a business world where job titles are less important than teamwork, people will have more control of the assignments they take on—to the betterment of their lives and the business success of the organization.

Once again, my goal with these blogs is to inspire deeper thinking and the startup of conversations. Please respond—affirmatively or negatively or somewhere in between.