On the future of evanescent organizations

Over the years I have been asked repeatedly about how telework can affect the structure of organizations or even allow new organizational forms. Given the widening turmoil in the global economy, together with the rapid expansion of information technology even in developing countries, it is worthwhile to examine some alternative organization forms. Specifically, evanescent organizations and their future, the focus of this essay. (If you are interested in some of my earlier thoughts the topic is covered in a few pages in Chapter 11 of my book Managing Telework.)

Evanescent organizations (EOs) comprise a set of interconnected organizational resources and components that collectively operate as a coherent functional whole. The interconnections, in my definition, mostly are telecommunications links of various sorts. Think of a “normal” organization in which the key elements are scattered around the countryside, or the globe, instead of in some central location. Furthermore, the organizations are problem- or product-specific; once the problem is solved, or the desired product is produced, the organization breaks up, perhaps to merge into an earlier, more traditional form or to reassemble itself with different components in order to address a new challenge. It’s the ad hoc nature of the organization that is its central feature. By their nature, EOs tend to be small and flexible, such as “tiger teams” that are formed even in large organizations to respond to a disaster or to some passing market opportunity. But EOs can also be large and far-flung themselves, like a campaign or political action committee in the recent US presidential campaigns [the use of EOs by the Democrats was decisive in the outcome]. But one thing is certain: modern information technology provides a much broader spectrum of opportunities for EOs than was possible a mere decade ago.

So, how are EOs likely to evolve in the 21st century?

To paraphrase an old Chinese proverb: In confusion there is opportunity. Given the state of global affairs currently, there is plenty of confusion, therefore plenty of opportunity, particularly for ad hocery. Just the thing for the rise and spread of EOs. Here are some of the situations that can foster the inception of an EO:

  • transient needs for hard-to-find expertise and/or services. For example, a project manager living in the French alps constantly scans the Internet for research needs and for qualified researchers, wherever they are. When the right opportunities mesh with the talents he has identified he assembles the team to perform the research. When the project is finished some or all of the team members go their separate ways and the manager starts on assembling the next project.
  • sudden changes in the business environment. I don’t have a specific example here but the implosion of the global financial sector and of the automobile industry is certainly producing demand for new ways to approach finance, automobile manufacturing (Tesla?), and energy consumption/conservation.
  • passing appearance of niche opportunities. Natural disasters provide major, if fleeting, opportunities to rebuild and improve infrastructures, redesign organizations and reassemble resources, often on a temporary basis.

Each of these is produced by turning points in “business as usual”. Large organizations, with their deep hierarchies and complex sets of policies and procedures, have great difficulty in reacting to such situations in a timely manner. This is especially the case if “business as usual” has been going on for a long time and the organizations think that they can control demand for their products or services (the arrogance of prolonged success?). Detroit comes to mind as an example, the Roman Empire as another, the traditional political parties as a third example. Compact, highly interconnected, non-hierarchical EOs can much more easily exploit these sudden climate changes (pun intended).

So, what is required to make an EO successful?

  • A clear, probably narrowly defined, purpose.
  • An entrepreneurial leader
  • The right collaborative talents, wherever they may be
  • The technological means to make team member interactions as facile and transparent as necessary for the task at hand

If those requirements are satisfied, the resulting EO has a good chance. The future looks bright for more, and more diverse, EOs. These will range in size from a few to thousands of collaborators, in scope from highly specific and narrow objectives (design a universal cosmic gadget) to hierachies of EOs (get Obama elected then help structure the policies in several areas). As technology continues to make these interactions ever more facile and inexpensive, EOs may constitute a significant fraction of the world’s organizations.

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