Sign In
Thought Thursdays
The organisation of the future: Exploring What if?


In a world in which disruption of everything and connectivity between everything (i.e. people and machines) are the new normal, what kind of organisations are likely to succeed – and which may become the dinosaurs of the future, without leaders and staff ever knowing what happened or why?  

To be successful in such an environment it is generally accepted, and supported by CEO and other surveys, that organisations will need to be:

  • Agile – to create or respond to disruption in their operating space and to be able to change their operating models rapidly
  • Innovative through the adoption of different mental models which can often result in radical new business models oiled by technology
  • Collaborativeto ensure that different divisions, functions, teams and disciplines work together for the greater good of the organisation
  • Entrepreneurial to identify opportunities and take action to take advantage of such opportunities
  • Networked – to ensure the ability to leverage the benefits of forming exceptional relations with multiple stakeholders
  • Continuously learning – to avoid complacency through open-minded leadership and to ensure access and the effective use of the latest knowledge and information

These attributes are, of course, all connected and will be a function of the organisational culture and design, which in turn will be shaped by leaders.

If this is true, the following 'what if' questions become important. Consider the following:

What if innovative collaboration between managers across divisions, functions, geographies and organisational levels resulted in a focus on the organisation's greater good, rather than on the parochial interests of a team or cost centre where there is so frequently competition for power and resources? Silos are prevalent in most organisations in one form or another, yet, as Gillian Tett in her book The Silo Effect clearly shows, silos are probably the most destructive force in most organisations.

What if so called 'support functions' such as HR, IT, corporate marketing and legal, among others, were incorporated into a single division that was viewed as and behaved like a professional services consulting firm rather than an 'overhead' and was able to offer multidisciplinary solutions to the organisation at a strategic level? Such a division would provide multidisciplinary teams which form and disperse according to need. Its relationship to the organisation would be based on service level agreements with customers based on clear service offerings. These offerings would include creating the future in addition to just improving the present.

What if transactional services were supplied by an integrated service centre run, not by functional specialists, but by someone qualified to run leading edge customer service centres? This would mean a focus on self-help, telephonic, email or social media options being made available for staff and managers – and potentially different stakeholders. The technology could enable staff to update their CVs and brand themselves on the system and algorithms would be able to ensure targeted provision of information, just as advertisers are beginning to do on social media sites.

What if organisations truly embraced the 'gig economy' and leaders realised that their talent may not be working for them and that each person should have a customised employment and psychological contract, depending on mutual needs. Currently in most organisations 'contractors' are dealt with by procurement, while internal talent is in the domain of HR, resulting in lack of alignment with organisational culture and often creating conflict between the organisation and the contractor.

What if organisations truly embraced diversity in every sense of the word and leveraged different perspectives to provide innovative solutions to problems? This does not happen spontaneously and would need a clear strategy, including understanding of the differences and the value they bring. Imagine if marketers and engineers combined their strengths and different ways of problem solving to create practical and innovative solutions. This would also avoid what Chimamanda Adichie, in his TED talk, called "the danger of the single story".

What if marketing and HR became joined at the hip and worked to provide a great employee experience? This would involve treating employees as customers, which in turn would mean segmenting the employee 'market' and providing highly customised staff benefits and experiences, rather than a policy-driven, one-size-fits-all approach that is prevalent in most organisations. The use of behavioural economics and detailed data analytics could provide strategic guidance about what talent is looking for from the organisation.

What if sustainability was considered as important as profits and was in fact leveraged to enable the organisation to access the best customers, talent and suppliers? This means that sustainability, including such issues as ethics, governance, the environment and social responsibility, would be central to the strategy (such as in Unilever), rather than a philanthropic extra.

What if, instead of formal surveys to measure staff satisfaction, engagement and everything else, there were ongoing 'pulse' surveys in which staff were asked to answer two or three questions about an interaction in less than 30 seconds – much in the same way that call centres test the experience of customers at the end of each engagement? This could also form the basis for performance feedback and would be real-time feedback rather than waiting till a year-end discussion with the manager. Sanctions and rewards (often nonfinancial) would then be determined weekly or monthly based on quantitative data.

One could continue with these what if questions …

What is essential in designing the successful organisation of the future is an understanding that the new hard  is soft and that, in order to meet the challenges of the current disruptive and connected environment, hard organisational design elements such as structure, processes and technology need to support soft, often intangible, elements such as culture, leadership, mindsets and capability, rather than the other way around. This is what leadership in the new normal will be about!​

Terry Meyer is a strategy and leadership consultant. He is a part-time faculty member of USB-ED where he is responsible for the HR-related executive programmes. Further areas of expertise include organisational design, and talent and human capital strategy.  

Email address: