Are You Working In The Past?

“Why isn’t your business as flexible, molecular, risk sensitive, segmented, team based, information rich, socially networked, transparent, responsive, adaptive and agile as it could be?”

Recently I was asked to be a “guest blogger” on the Regus blog. In case you don’t know, it’s rather big in serviced office accommodation and now operates over 1200 business centres in 95 countries. Samuel, the Group Social Media Manager, liked the piece I wrote about Accor and how it has been selling-off its property assets. Clearly, my article resonated with a business that wants you to lease office space from it, rather than own your own.

Samuel has asked me a couple of times now if I would look at Regus’ Kinetic Challenge, a short online questionnaire that allows you to compare your organisation against a somewhat idealised organisational model set out in a related white paper. So, I thought, why not? I answered the entire thing based on my experience of working for many organisations, of all sorts and sizes, over the past forty years or so.

Ok, so I am getting on a bit now and much has changed during my working life, but I came up with a score of 23% for my composite experience of business life. Most businesses I have worked for do not conform to the model outlined in the white paper. In fact, the vast majority come nowhere close. I guess that is Regus’ point. So, why not I wondered?

If you read this blog regularly you will be familiar with my oft-quoted idea that most businesses are organised in a way that reflects the century the industry was formed in. That is perhaps less true today than it was when I first came across it, but there is some element of truth in it still. So, the first reason that many businesses don’t conform to the model is that’s just not how they do things. They like the way things are and they see no reason to change, let’s call it inertia, or tradition. More modern industries tend to embrace some of this stuff anyway, as they were conceived in a different era.

The second reason for divergence, from this purportedly ideal organisational form for today’s world, is that many of the things that are recommended are expensive, hard to implement and difficult to justify in hard-nosed financial terms. Although organisations often don’t put much thought into their investment decisions, “lack of payback” is a great blocker to changing things they don’t really want to change. Many managers just don’t have the understanding of how their business works to even be able see the point of the changes being proposed, let alone to be able to justify an investment in them.

The third reason is that, sadly perhaps, people at work do not behave in such an ideal way. Businesses are complex, highly politicised social networks where, to be honest, a lot of folk are not working in the business’ best interest. They are often working in their own best interests and this particularly applies towards the top of the organisation. It is these same “top people” that you would need to get buy-in from for the sort of changes that this model proposes. Whilst the often younger and less cynical “body” of an organisation may very well appreciate the benefits of some of this stuff, the “head” may be too full of other things.

If I was Regus I would segment the market by industry age. I’d forget about the oldest and most established professions and industries, if we have any of those left, as they are unlikely to be swayed. The most recent businesses are doing this stuff anyway, and if they aren’t there is probably a good reason. The folk in the middle are, to my mind, most likely to be receptive to organisational adaptation to strengthen their competitive advantage and that, of course, may involve some flexible serviced office space along the way.

If your business is living a long way in the past it may be just too difficult to make changes such as these. You either don’t have the margins for it, the vision, or the enthusiasm to embrace them. However, if your business is only living a few decades in the past you may be able to make real and beneficial changes to your organisation along these lines. What you will need more than anything, to get it done, is a brave, determine and effective leader, but there aren’t too many of those around.

The simple truth is that only a small proportion of businesses that succeed in any one era can adapt to change. For most it is just too difficult and that is why so many once famous companies no longer exist. It is though, rarely, an outdated organisational form alone that kills them, but it is often a sign of impending doom.


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