Designing an organization is not something that managers should take on without a good deal of thought. Unfortunately, the coverage of organizational design in library management courses is often simplified to a toying around with two organizational dichotomies: flat or hierarchical; centralized or decentralized. The impression you get from such a surface understanding of design is that organizations are like play-doh and can be squished and pulled at will.
Organizational Design (OD) is a strategic device. You do it to make your organization more competitive in whatever environment you face. As a strategic device, it ought to be the slave to a strategy — a full-scale plan that covers everything from the values the organization will hold dear, its mission, including the sorts of goals, objectives and actions it will undertake to accomplish it’s mission.
With Library 2.0 advocates calling for radical change in organizations, I fear that libraries could take on organizational design as a symbollic gesture toward more inclusivity, rather than as a strategic maneuver to improve service. For instance, I think frustration over the departmental silos that come with traditional matrix organization structures will cause library leaders to call for “flat” structures, without considering the devil in the details that automatically come with complex organizations.
Flatness in organizational structure is not an end-goal. It achieves certain things that may indeed be desirable. But not without rather considerable costs. There are reasons why hierarchy exists in large organizations and have existed for a long time. If hierarchy did not have its benefits, most currently thriving organizations would not have survived as long as they have.
Here are a few benefits of hierarchical structures:
The Division of Labor
Adam Smith and his fellow Utilitarians could be the reason why Western civilization is as rich as it is. You can harp against capitalism all you want, but clearly, the advancement of commerce helped societies uncover major secrets about fulfilling human needs with limited resources. One of the more famous secrets is the division of labor — namely, that when group specialize on particular aspects of the production process, the overall result is much more efficient.This still rings true for libraries. My library does not want me handling the finances. Nor do they want me cataloguing. We have people who know that much better than I do.
In theory, the Director/CEO is the organization’s most competent individual. (Yes, I know, in theory.) The problem is, there is only so much a single CEO can do. That’s why he/she hires others to help. Even if a co-worker only performs at 75% of the CEO, it’s still better that 175% is getting done, instead of just 100%.
But there’s more. Comparative advantage tells us that opportunity cost needs to be considered as well. If you have your highly competent CEO busy doing mundane clerical work, your organization is losing the opportunity to have him/her busy engaging city leaders, influencing officials, and making high-level decisions about the workplace. So, you assign your 75% person to the less important task, focusing your high-level employees on high-value areas. Flatter structures tend to mix this advantage up, engaging less proficient individuals in high value areas, resulting in poorer results overall.
By having leaders with powers to make decisions, you can avoid micromanagement in organizations. While individual leaders may choose to be micromanagers (which is not a very desirable trait anyway), a hierarchical structure will make it difficult for a director to be looking over the shoulders of his/her employees. Flat organizations can turn into “micromanaged by the CEO” organizations.
Fair Compensation, Merit and Rewards
There are two principles that fall here. 1) If you ask staff to be involved in high-level decision making, you ought to pay them for it. 2) Many staff want to see a natural progression to their career path. Hierarchical structures do help signal that a clear path to advancement exists with the organization, and supports a process for paying people based on the degree of risk, difficulty and intellectual gymnastics required to do the job. Flatter organizations often make the advancement path more ambiguous, perhaps encouraging employees to look elsewhere to advance their careers.
Once organizations reach a certain size, clear communication becomes essential. Directors do not have time to read 1000s of emails, reports, complaints, comments and memos every day. Hierarchical structures offer some reporting control in large organizations, because a director can get reports from a senior management team, instead of from everyone. Again, this keeps the director focussed on high-level thinking and away from the everyday foibles of library work. Flatter structures can lead to confusion and interruption as “little fires” make their way to the director’s desk.
When structures are set up with departmental silos, departments will compete against each other for access to the budget. That will increase their willingness to perform, and (believe or not) encourage innovation within the departments.
The same works for individuals. When two employees want the same higher level job, they will compete against each other to show they are the best person for the job. This can be an advantage and can encourage increased productivity.
Hierarchies do tend to tie responsibility to individuals, who in turn are likely to respond to reports of poor performance, embarrassing mistakes, and accusations of unethical behavior. By contrast, flat organizations tend to diffuse responsibility to the group, in extreme cases to the point that no one is responsible for any disasters that happen.
Hierarchical structures promote diversity. Diversity is essential in organizations. When I put a survey out to staff asking them for their feelings on specific problems or issues, the information I receive is extremely valuable because I get responses from people coming from a wide range of perspectives. Some see customers first-hand. Others are closer to the technical side of things. Even others (such as financial and HR people) have no full understanding about the daily operations of a library and have even more interesting perspectives on what should and should not be done.
Organizational flatness can reduce diversity in organizations because culture can take over, and sound out the dissenting voices.
Is Flatness a Bad Idea?
Flat organizations have their own strengths as well. Since I intend this article as a counter-point to the idea that Organizational Flatness is an ideal structure, I will not cover it in depth. You can probably guess the benefits anyway. Staff can have more stake in the organization’s success, more equal/equitable atmosphere, reduced protectionism among departments and so on. In fact, you could probably take the advantages of the hierarchical structure, take them to extreme and show how a flat structure is more efficient.
In the end, the point of this post is not to say that flatness is bad — just that flatness affords advantages that can help achieve certain strategic goals at the cost of other advantages that may be better for other goals.
Does the Library 2.0 movement suggest a move toward flatter structures? Here are some thoughts.
I think a Library 2.0 future implies the following about organizational structures in public libraries:
- Web and technical service teams will necessitate more communication among service and technical departments and will grow on the whole. Research and Development will probably merge into this area as well.
- As electronic media continues to grow and resources get easier to use, circulation departments are going to continue to decrease and/or merge into information services departments, resulting in flatter structures.
- If laptops continue to get cheaper and wireless gains ground (not guaranteed yet), centralized technical support will diffuse into a more front-lines model. This is because libraries desktop hardware will require less maintenance (just replace the old machines with new ones) and laptop service will require a higher degree of support.
- Teen and Youth services will continue to be their own “silos” in the long run. The skill sets are too unique to lose in a more diffuse structure.
- Readers and Reference Services will tend to merge.
- The roving model will lead to more “team” oriented work on the floor, but specialized services for business, government access and more personalized information management services will require “junior” and “senior” information service roles, similar to those found in Policy shops and consultancies.
- Collaborative communication models via wikis, blogs, etc. will put a more human face on directors and make it easier for them to give and receive feedback from all levels of staff.
- The same models will facilitate more cross-departmental communication as well.
- Human Resources will have to communicate more clearly with technical people as well, since e-Learning (via Web tools and Learning 2.0-ish programs) will be key to future professional development of staff.
In sum, yes I do think the future will find libraries getting flatter as a whole. I say that these changes will probably “tip” somewhere between 2015 & 2020. This will not always be a very friendly process though, since it will involve changes in people’s job descriptions, pay-scale, reporting structures, and perhaps even employment. It is important to remember that change in the workplace is not all good. Many times change in the workplace also means change in home-life as people end up moving, re-skilling, and perhaps even making decisions about their future with the organization. We should be sensitive always to the consequences of change, even if the change is both necessary and inevitable.
Most importantly, we should ensure that due process is paid prior to decision making. Studies have clearly shown that people are more willing to accept, even an unfair distribution of work and pay if there was a fair process behind the decision making process.