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Build Bridges

Excerpt from Rethinking the Corporation

By Robert M. Tomasko



Architecture as a Metaphor

This has been a book about the organizational architecture of the new corporation. Throughout, references have been made to the process and the concerns of building architects as they design physical structures to contain human activities. They select a site, prepare it, plan a structure, and incorporate an infrastructure. They are concerned with the architecture of change, as well as with the architecture of stability.

There are many parallels between this process and the sequence followed by thoughtful executives concerned with getting their organization right: Resize-strategically and operationally; then reshape; and, finally, rethink. The architectural metaphor has been used to stimulate new thinking about what has too often become a unidimensional, oneshot mechanistic process. By thinking differently about what needs to go on when reorganizing, top management may find that it skips fewer critical steps and retains more of the creativity of the designer.

Some buildings look as though they just happened, whereas others seem more "architectural." What is the difference? Architecture is not, as the Canadian architect Witold Rybczynski likes to stress, something just added to plain buildings to make them appear interesting. It is more like the difference between gastronomy and cooking. Both meet basic needs, but one fuses science and artistry in a carefully preplanned manner; the other seems to just happen as necessity dictates. Both buildings and organizations are settings for human activity. But poorly designed ones put obstacles in the way of activity, whereas thoughtfully planned ones can help it flow almost effortlessly.

Even good architecture cannot resist time. Look at the Parthenon, erected in the age of Pericles at Athens's cultural apogee and now a shell providing hints of its former beauty-a victim of several civil wars and centuries of tourists. Frank Lloyd Wright's roofs are reputed to leak occasionally. Even the Pompidou Center in Paris, a modern-art museum built in 1977 that appears to hang all its infrastructure on the outside walls, sometimes looks a little worse for the wear. Buildings require continual maintenance and renovation. So does organizational architecture. If nothing else, functions, strategies, and markets may change long before a hierarchy collapses.

Keeping an organization updated and fully functional requires the same effort that goes into painting a long bridge. By the time a crew has gone from one end to the other, it is usually time to start over on the original side. USAA, the San Antonio insurance company, uses the same principle to keep its organization improvement unit perpetually busy. A year or two after working with one of its internal clients, the group is back to evaluate what has worked and what has not and to help invent remedies for unwanted second-order effects of otherwise good recommendations. Not only must this be an ongoing practice, but it needs to be done with full awareness that the organizational problems being experienced today most likely had their seeds planted years ago when they were the solutions to the pressing problems of that time.

Architecture is big-picture work. Seasoned designers and rebuilders know how difficult it is to change just one thing. Moving just one wall may involve a dozen other structural and infrastructural changes. A key skill of the architect is to think through all these interconnections before the first change is made. Capable organizational architects have the same requirement. They do not attempt to restructure jobs before unnecessary work is outplaced; they know that until reinforced jobs and load-bearing managers are in place, it is fruitless to eliminate functional departments and build the organization around business processes.

Lower Walls, Build Bridges

Organization-its structure and the processes it accommodates-is important in itself. It is not just a tool to serve other ends. While it is a key means of generating economic wealth, it is also a place where many people live out much of their lives. This other dimension implies that organization planners have a special responsibility to create something that is not only productive, but humane. This is something the best business leaders seem to know almost intuitively but at times is most eloquently expressed by statesmen and philosophers.

Churchill observed, "We make our buildings, then our buildings make us." A building's work is not completed when it is erected, nor an organization chart's when issued. They both must be lived in; the way they are structured can have a considerable impact on the quality of life and work possible in each. Excessive structure is uneconomical and confining. Structure creates walls, internal borders. The self-protective behaviors engendered, and the armies of staff police needed to guard them, all slow a company, dilute its focus, and add unnecessary rigidity.

Unfortunately, more is required to release the behaviors businesses need to succeed than simply demolishing every wall in sight. Some walls do bear necessary loads, some demarcate separations that should not blur, and some provide protection from hostile elements. The remedy for bureaucracy is not anarchy and chaos. These merely serve as the breeding ground for the next demagogic leader. Remember what Erich Fromm wrote at the outset of the Second World War: "True freedom is not the absence of structure-letting the employees go off and do whatever they want-but rather a clear structure that enables people to work within established boundaries in an autonomous and creative way." These are boundaries that are not too close, but not too far away.

This book has outlined some of these structures, ones that can serve as positive jumping-off points, not imprisoning barriers. It also urges that wall demolition be accompanied by bridge building. Barrier removal creates vacuums. Mechanisms for connection making do not rise unaided from the rubble. Reinforced jobs, horizontal organizations, dual hierarchies, jobs-as-assignments all require skillful design. Think about the rapidly changing situation in Europe. While the falling of the Berlin Wall may symbolize the end of the old Europe, it is the new linkages - the channel tunnel, the euro common currency, the emergence of English as the continent's shared second language - that herald Europe's new beginning.


© Robert M. Tomasko 2002

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