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This is the first in a series of Flexibility articles aimed at human resource managers, line managers and others responsible for organising, managing, supporting, recruiting, training and retaining staff and with an interest in introducing more flexible working methods.

Most personnel managers understand, and many have introduced, conventional flexible working practices such as flexible working hours and non-standard contracts. The new flexibilities made possible by technology are however alien to many and this series seeks to provide practical advice and guidance.




A culture for new ways of working

Lessons from history:

Good organisation and communication has always underpinned great enterprises - empires, nations, civil administrations, fighting forces, public services, successful businesses.  Historically, strong organisations have been built on clear objectives, command structures, leadership and roles.  These principles have been applied by commercial enterprises and still form the basis for much of today's accepted good management practice.

Tasks and information are managed downwards, and issues and exceptions are escalated upwards.  Staff work to tightly defined roles, often written down in job descriptions.  Barriers are built between departments (including the creation of "internal markets").   Allegiances are often formed to the unit or department rather than to the organisation as a whole.

The legacy of geography:

Structures within distributed organisations are often based on geographic location.  Competing, overlapping or duplicate functions can be located at different sites for reasons often lost in the mists of the organisation's history.

Traditionally people based away from the main centre could only work effectively with a full infrastructure of office, support staff and management.  In spite of radical changes in technology and business processes, regional and local offices and management structures have persisted.  There is often a perception that physical location is still important to customers, but this is often not the case nowadays.

Controlling information:

Managers (and others) in organisations accumulate information for many reasons.  A positive reason is to help them do their job more effectively.  Quite often, however, information is used to reinforce hierarchy.

One unfortunate side effect of this is that, usually unintentionally, these people become "information gatekeepers" - the flow of information is always through them.  They only dispense information on a "need to know" basis.

A common problem in many organisations is that decisions get referred upwards to people who have access to information and the authority to act, but are themselves suffering from information overload.

Management by presence:

Most managers, when consulted, like to believe in management by results.  Yet the truth is often at the other extreme: staff are monitored, not only by managers but also by colleagues: when they arrive for work, when the leave and how long they take for lunch.  Those that do work flexibly within this type of environment often have to endure criticism from colleagues, as well as being disadvantaged when it comes to career advancement opportunities.

The UK has the longest working hours in Europe, especially amongst managers, professional and administrative staff, yet output is no higher than in countries with shorter working hours.

Towards the learning organisation:

The concept of the learning organisation turns conventional thinking about the "command and control" culture on its head.  Instead it recognises that people perform better if they are respected, trusted and motivated.

A learning culture has been defined as a working environment based around the following ten principles:

Vision: all staff are aware of and identify with the vision, mission and strategy at all levels: corporate, division, department, project

Responsibility: the individual has the responsibility to acquire the skills and access the information, support and tools necessary to do the job

Support: the organisation provides the necessary infrastructure and services to support the individual

Information: access to information is constrained only by the competence of the individual and genuine security considerations, rather than outdated concepts such as "need to know"; information is not censored, except for good reason 

Consultation: it is accepted that the best ideas do not necessarily come from the most senior people

Openness: open debate and constructive criticism are encouraged, without fear of management reprisal

Learning: all staff, even those at the top, are committed to acquiring new knowledge and understanding and learning new skills

Recognition: skills, abilities and learning achievements are recognised through meaningful accreditation

Caring: the organisation cares about the lives, careers, interests and well-being of its employees

Improvement: the organisation is itself committed to continuous improvement in its structure, processes and working methods, including learning from its staff.

It can sometimes be constructive to use this as a checklist to indicate organisational readiness for new ways of working. 

A foundation for flexible working:

The point of all this is that, in order to benefit fully from flexible working, the culture of the organisation and the style and skills of managers need to be prepared for it.

Introducing new technology, new facilities and policies for more flexible working will generally achieve little if the organisation remains wedded to the values, culture and management methods of the past.

Next article: Working flexibly

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