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A New Operating System for the Organization

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Gordon Vala-Webb will be speaking at the KMWorld conference in Washington DC. His three sessions are listed here. Click here to register.

I left home in 1976 to go to university thousands of miles away from my parents. We communicated using aerograms (single sheets of blue, thin, paper folded up to become their own envelopes). Unbeknownst to me, the ability to send a point-to-point communications between computers – like the aerograms I was using to stay communicate with my family – had just been invented a few years earlier.

I had my first summer job the year before when I worked at an amusement park. (My small claim to infamy is that I accidently derailed – on my first time out as the driver - the last car of the small train that circled the park.) From my perspective as an employee, the park was run like a benevolent dictatorship with my colleagues and I being told precisely when, what and how to do our work (although, I would argue, not precisely enough regarding how to drive the train). We all worked with a sense of being under constant (although unseen) panopticon-like observation and threat by the managers.

A couple of years later, having graduating from school, my first real job was with a small organization where I was “Director” of an adult education program. I managed my work using a black notebook to keep track of what I was to do and what I thought (hoped?) others (that I was depending on) were doing. Later on (and several careers later), once email was ubiquitous, I simply combined retained emails with my trusty notebook.

AerogramThe world has significantly changed since the 70’s and 80’s and is now a much more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA). As a consequence our organizations need to be much better than they ever were at what Jack Welch called the ultimate competitive advantage: “An organization’s ability to learn and translate that learning into action rapidly.” The core of this ability  – which is its ability to innovate - is this bedrock trinity: (1) communication across the organization; (2) the mindset that connects people to the purpose of the organization and the “way” we do things here; and (3) the co-ordination of the activities in support of the organization’s thinking and the doing.

Unfortunately, the way we do this within our organizations remains the same as what we used in the the 70’s and 80’s. So, despite the fact that the world around our organizations is changing at an accelerating rate, our fundamentally organizational capabilities are rooted in an outmoded organizational “operating system” made up of old components:



Point-to-point, few-to-few, push


Early 70's

Management mindset

Benevolent dictatorship; bureaucratic (rule-based); focus on efficiency, limits, and fault-finding; standardization of best practices; consistency, complacency, conformity

Scientific management

Late 19th century

Work organization

Ad hoc, idiosyncratic, task management with formal project management for big projects

Personal to-dos


Organizational efforts to be better – e.g. Innovation programs, knowledge management, organizational strategy development, reward-and-recognition programs – rest on this critical underpinning; and, as a consequence, all success will be bounded - or accelerated - by this foundation.

Of course our organizations have been able to do some learning and adaptation - although some, of course, have not survived (the average age of a corporation on the S&P 500 list has dropped from 67 years in the 1920’s to just 15 years today). But can you imagine what kind of organization they could be if given the right operating system that would make it possible for:

  • People to communicate efficiently across silos / hierarchy / time
  • The organization has an integrative / learning mindset
  • Thinking work to be seen – and therefore managed.

MachiavelliAll of the models / approaches / technologies for changing the organization’s operating system are all available, easy to use, and cheap to employ. Which raised the question: how is it that organizations, facing extinction (or at least amalgamation or shrinkage) in a VUCA world and where new ways are so easily at hand, have not made the necessary changes? The answer comes to us from 1532 when Nicolo Machiavelli published The Prince and he said:

. . . there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents . . . and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them.

There are many within organizations, and those who surround them like vendors and consultants and university professors, who “have done well under the old conditions”. And it is true that there we do not have “long experience” of the new “order of things”. So, like the Iowa corn farmers in the classic study of the diffusion of innovation, we are seemingly all waiting for our neighbouring farms to change before we too will consider changing (despite the overwhelming evidence that change is required and the new approaches work).

So what are these easily-available new models / approaches / technologies that we should be using as the new operating system for our organizations?



Many-to-many, pull, structured messaging

Enterprise / team social networking

Yammer, Jive, Slack, ThreadKM

Management mindset

Engaging employees in the “why” of the organization; focus on potential / capacity of our people; diversity / boundary-spanning networks are valued

Integrative / learning

Netflix, Google, Apple

Work organization

Ad hoc, idiosyncratic, task management with formal project management for big projects

Kanban (lean, visual, management)

Many IT development shops, some health care providers and professional service firms

A new organizational operating system is both necessary and attainable. Time for a reboot!

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