This article was produced and financed by BI Norwegian Business School

More efficient employees without a commanding boss?

A rapidly-changing world requires new management styles and organisational designs. Don't just tell the employees what to do - rather, help them to work better among themselves.

BI Norwegian Business School

BI is a private and independent business school in Norway.

The way that we currently organise is derived, in part, from principles used by the Roman army.

Individual soldiers were not considered capable of deciding or coordinating their own actions. Nor did they have a good overview of the battle field situation. Therefore, hierarchy, in the form of superiors and subordinates, was used to control and coordinate the  troops.

Whether we like it or not, many elements of this organisational view is still with us today, both in private businesses and public organizations alike. It affects our attitudes, our thoughts and our actions.

It manifests itself in structured organisation charts, with clear lines from managers to workers through myriads of organisational levels and reporting relationships. These charts depict who belongs where, and with whom.

Rapid changes
Professor Øystein D. Fjeldstad, BI Norwegian Business School (Foto: Torbjørn Brovold)

Much has changed since the glory days of the Roman Empire, and it is high time that we change our approach to organising to reflect the new realities.

The people doing the work in today’s organisations are often smarter than those managing them. With the aid of digital tools, they are also in an equally good position to see the big picture. Further, not only has the world become far more complex, it is also changing rapidly and continuously – it is getting more dynamic.

“Hierarchy is great for dealing with complexity, but not when the environment is changing rapidly,” says Øystein D. Fjeldstad, Professor in the Department of Strategy at BI Norwegian Business School.

“It’s a huge challenge for managers and designers of organisations. The changes require completely new ways of organising and leading.”

The military on the frontline

To face these new challenges associated with complex dynamic environments, some organisations have started experimenting with radically new approaches.

In what might at first seem like a paradox, the military is once again on the frontline when it comes to testing new models for organising operations.

The traditional hierarchical model of organising is not very effective for handling new types of threats, such as terrorism, weapons of mass destruction and attacks targeting central infrastructures.

The US Armed Forces and its NATO partners have developed and implemented a network-oriented organisational model, called Network Centric Operations.

One of the aims of this model is to enable teams composed of highly competent people to collaborate and self-organise based on real-time shared awareness of the situation, rather than orders issued from above.

“This strengthens the ability to coordinate efforts without using managers (bosses),” says the BI Professor.

Radical experiments

Øystein D. Fjeldstad and his research colleagues Charles C. Snow, Raymond E. Miles and Christopher Lettl, have identified key characteristics for a radical new way of organising. They have presented their findings in a scientific article in the the Strategic Management Journal.

In brief, it’s about replacing hierarchy (command, control and central coordination) with mechanisms that enable the actors (employees and partners) to collaborate and self-organise in order to get their work done .

“Self-organisation does not equal chaos - it helps cope with it”, says Fjeldstad.

Self-organising is aided by protocols, norms, and values that guide how people interact, both in and across organisations.

Greater emphasis is thus placed on designing how people work together rather than who they specifically will work with or report to.

A shared platform where people can exchange knowledge, information about the current situation, and other resources  is another component of this new organisational design.

In the article, Fjeldstad and his colleaguespresent examples l from a global consulting firm (Accenture), an international technology alliance ( and an organisation that develops software that is free for everyone (Linux), in addition to the US Armed Forces.

Four tips for managers

Fjeldstad emphasises that the principles behind the organisational design that he is presenting are not new. We can find them in how we organise complex systems, such as the Internet and object-oriented computer systems, which do not have central units hierarchically managing it all.

Organising people in this way is new. Such organisational designs put the focus on the people doing the work, their capabilites and on the ways that they relate rather than on elaborate organisational charts. 

Instead of starting at the top of the organisation, Fjeldstad and his colleagues want to start with the relationships between the actors.

The strategy professor has four practical tips for executives and managers who are thinking about re-designing their organisations:

  1. Look for ways to disassemble hierarchy. Reduce the number of levels in the organisation and the number of predefined vertical and horisontal relationships.
  2. Identify  opportunities for self-organising using these design principles. There are likely more such opportunities than one would think at the outset.
  3. Examine what is needed to realise this in the form of  skills, digital infrastructures, commons, protocols, norms, and values.
  4. Facilitate and support people in making the transition. Technology is not a solution in and of itself, but if part of an overall design,, it can support collaborration and self-organization.
Take lessons from the ants

Managers might also draw inspiration from ants, who systematically explore and exploit food resources.

The queen ant does not directly control and coordinate the worker ants. Instead, ants operate based on a simple set of processes and communication protocols that enable self-organised collaborration to get work done.

When an ant finds food, it releases pheromones on the way back to the nest. The smell is a signal that mobilises other ants to follow the traces to the source. They then collect food in columns until the source is empty. When there is no more food to collect, the ants stop releasing pheromones on the way back. The trace weakens and the ants start exploring new terrain to find more food.

“You could save a lot of time spent on management meetings if you can develop good general principles for collaboration,” says Fjeldstad.

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