Pervasive connectivity and artificial intelligence will put traditional organisational structures under pressure as the 21st century progresses.
In olden days – before 10 years ago – organisations thrived in a feudal system of courts, fiefdoms, fealty and serfs. Those at the bottom of the hierarchy did all the grunt work, while those at the top played the greasy-pole game, climbing ever higher. If those at the top had very little interaction with those down below, it didn’t really matter – serfs are replaceable.
That’s how it used to be before massive connectivity initiated the pervasive erosion of all business silos – before those connections reached so far into every part of the organisation that now everyone is in everyone else’s business.
Yet businesses still stumble about under the assumptions that no longer apply. We think of businesses as units, rather than suites of services. We think of employees filling roles, rather than as capacities that can be targeted where and when the organisation needs it. We think of managers as the know-it-alls who provide necessary direction and vision.
None of that is true anymore, and the further we progress into the 21st century, the more ridiculously archaic it seems. In a generation, today’s offices will seem as antiquated as something out of Mad Men, because the boundaries between corporate lord and serf are rapidly disappearing.
It remains an open question whether any of our existing organisations can make a smooth transition from business-as-usual-in-the-High-Middle-Ages into a modern ‘transorganisational’ era of pervasive artificial intelligence resources that effectively automate most paperwork tasks, leaving humans to deal with the exceptional cases – and the interesting work.
We see those scary figures about 40 per cent of the workforce being automated away in the next decade and imagine it to be threatening someone else. But it’s not. AI is coming after professionals: doctors, lawyers, bankers and teachers.
And, of course, managers. Why have anything other than C-suite managers when AI can handle all the other coordinating tasks? What happens to the greasy pole when there’s only a top rung?
This is exactly where Deakin University CIO William Confalonieri’s description of the organisation as a ‘symphony’ becomes important – listen to what he has to say in the most recent episode of the Lenovo ThinkFWD CIO Series podcast. The atomic, hierarchical organisation disintegrates under the competitive pressure of pervasive connectivity and artificial intelligence. Yet the symphony – well-practised, well-coordinated and playing from the same page – thrives in that same environment. Violins do not compete with the horns, nor horns with the tympani. Each has their place, their moment and a singular quality without which the orchestra is left diminished.
Instead, these emerging resources of connectivity and artificial intelligence allow the symphony to focus on its creative expression because all of the more mundane activities – formerly the work of serfs – have been relegated to systems seen not as threats but as necessary supports.
Moving from the feudal to into this transorganisational form must be one goal of every CIO/CDO over the next generation. Very few companies have crossed this gap – perhaps only Amazon and Valve make the list – but the bulk of the 21st century’s markets, businesses and profits lie on the other side of this transition.
Educators must prepare their students for this world while simultaneously entering the world for themselves. Deakin, embracing both AI and a digital services strategy that provides students 24/7 support, seems well on the way there. But they’re the outliers. William Confalonieri has turned Deakin into a teaching moment not just for its students, but for all businesses across Australia.
We should all be taking notes.