Today, I’m working in an office at Harvard Business School. I was invited to give a talk yesterday to the Technology and Operations Management group here, and I must say I’ve been very impressed with the colleagues I’ve met in the last two days.
The title of my talk was “Organizational learning and organizational innovation.” I argued that learning and innovation share the same key feature: they arise unplanned, unexpected, and emergent, and can’t be commanded to occur. Organizations are designed in a top-down, structured way that allows the people at the top to control what goes on. The science of management has, historically, been an attempt to identify the best way to design organizations. Think of the classic organizational chart.
However, at some point (at least 50 years ago) researchers realized that no matter how hard you try to structure an organization, there’s always going to be stuff that goes on outside of the formal org chart–the informal organization, those social network ties that people form on the fly just to get their work done. And that realization led to another one: even within the formal structure, nothing would ever work right unless some of that informal, bottom-up, emergent stuff happened too. Maybe even a lot of it. The challenge since that realization has been to explain how effective organizations manage to blend both the formal, intended structure and the unintended, emergent processes that always happen when people come together.
My argument is that organizational learning and organizational innovation are always part of the unplanned, unintended, emergent side; they can’t be commanded, and no organizational structure–no matter how clever or well-designed–can make learning and innovation happen. Fortunately, research now tells us what features of an organization are associated with effective emergent learning and innovation:
- Lattice organization
- Teams form and reform spontaneously
- Dense social networks
- High information flows
- Porous boundaries
- Reduced emphasis on top-down control
- Creative contributions come from everyone
Thanks to Amy Edmondson for extending the invitation!