What is soft infrastructure? We all understand the term ‘infrastructure’. It is a collective term for roads, railways, airports, ports, telecommunications networks, supply pipelines, etc. It is all to do with movement and these networks are all ‘hard’ i.e. they are made out of steel, concrete, and copper and they can all be touched.
Infrastructure is not quite the same as structure in an organisational context. Structure implies rigidity, a silo mentality and in many cases adherence to the past (especially in terms of behaviour). The new Organisational structures of the future will be more like infrastructures, offering support and guidance rather than controlling. Unlike the past, future (infra) structures will be wildly different, varying according to culture, market niche, company size, etc. They will, of course, all have one common theme – people.
Let us just take a break there. We could wander off into the future with some great ideas about what organisational structures could look like based on the opinions of experts and our own experiences.
There is just one tiny problem, something that is happening right now. We have a global pandemic and the measures that we are all taking are forcing us to work in very different ways compared to just a few weeks ago.
As a result, organisations might prefer to adopt some of these ways of working and as employees, we might prefer some of them too!
People need to be connected together in all sorts of ways. They are the valuable assets of the organisation and must be looked after by Human Resources, connected by IT and rewarded by the boss. But there is more, due to our dependence on intangible assets such as creativity, know-how, and culture as well as social interaction to create and exploit ideas.
For our businesses to function successfully, these things too must move around. Attempts have often been made in the past to codify these ideas, transmit them to another place and then try and extract both the message and the meaning of what has been received. Try having an email exchange with an angry colleague and you will understand the problems.
In order to have some sort of remote working, hierarchies will need to be flattened. Human nature means that those who imagine themselves with power like to be able to survey their empire and are not always comfortable viewing it remotely.
With many people away from work ill it will become apparent that a lack of employees at the coalface might reduce the capacity of an organisation to deliver a service of produce widgets. Capacity will not be reduced quite so much when those calling themselves ‘managers’ are taken out of the workforce or reallocated to other duties.
We need things to travel in ways that are not constrained by boundaries and which certainly do not travel in straight lines. Just like the ripples on a pond we might wish some things to be broadcast, such as company culture. And like a networked computer system we will need some sort of storage and perhaps some form of maintenance function to ensure that everything runs smoothly.
When thinking of communicating within a corporate environment we often think of sending things out (pushing) or receiving from others (pulling). What about when things just sort of slosh about, and proceed at their own pace or when disruptive events occur and we need a system that repairs or heals itself? We need a new type of infrastructure, one that is invisible and which connects everybody to everyone else. It must allow meaning, intuition, creativity and emotion to flow with no bottlenecks and no burst pipes. What we need therefore is the right sort of ‘network’ – a soft infrastructure rather than a hard structure .
So what does this soft infrastructure actually look like? The best metaphor I have come up with is a bowl of soup with croutons!
The soup represents the entire organisation and its culture. It is organic and simply ‘exists’. The soup contains other ingredients and most importantly – croutons. The croutons are important but are not on a higher level, they are the leaders and managers of tomorrow.
Within this organisation, pay and rewards will depend more on what you know and who you connect with rather than your job title and position in the hierarchy.
So managers and leaders will be ‘expert’ i.e. good at their job, not just promoted for long service. Other employees will also be experts in manufacturing, finance and logistics. Yes employees can move around and change functional areas but only if they are good. No more ‘Peter Principle’.
If you are thinking about change right now you might like to read When The Threat Is Here, It Is Too Late To Change! For other recent articles visit Latest Blog Posts.