Survival of the Matrixed


7 minute read
Jo Reid

Jo Reid

Managing Director

Digital Insights

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Calvium MD, Jo Reid, has written an article that was featured in the December 2020 edition of ‘The HR Director (page 44). Read  the article below and find a copy of the recent issue on The HR Director.  

The tragic human impact of COVID-19 can never be forgotten. Beyond that terrible mark in time, comes a horribly damaged economy, somewhere down a long list. But as with all aspects of life, some market sectors have been badly affected, while others – such as online businesses – are booming. As we have all witnessed, the hospitality industry, in particular, has been hit hard and it’s clear that many firms will cease to exist over the coming months. But could any of this have been avoided, or at the very least, could the blow have been softened?

As readers will know, organisational structure, culture and use of technology are critical factors that influence the ability of a business to respond and adapt to market change and other external pressures. Here, the pandemic has served to highlight organisational failings and weakness. A headline example is the capacity to instantly deploy staff remotely, without disruption and still operate as teams, which has been critical in terms of business continuity. Some organisations have structures, cultures and technology that are better able to respond, adapt and collaborate while working remotely and others have struggled. There is a case to say that traditional hierarchies have been well-and-truly exposed as inadequate and that new technology should be embraced, not just to survive, but to be effective and competitive in the future.

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As with many things, it’s never that simple

There are more traditional hierarchies that work incredibly well and there are flatter, matrix systems that have been introduced into organisations, with little effect or improvement. There are hybrid organisations – a good example of one is the police service – which have traditional hierarchical structures, driven by their command and control frontline operational model. But when you go behind the scenes, matrix teams are operating on projects and critical work streams. These organisations, possibly because they are very comfortable planning and responding to the unexpected, have been able to adapt quickly, deploying thousands of people – predominantly support staff – to work from home, still maintaining an effective police presence, while progressing with new business.

Of course, there are pros and cons for all organisational models and, for any to work effectively, a number of critical elements must be in place. Top of these key factors is a progressive senior leadership, which can live with the fact that, we learn more from our mistakes than we do from successes. A culture that encourages an element of risk taking, has given oxygen to that now popular cliché – ‘fail early, fail often’ – and it is a mindset for our time, that can push organisations to places where they need to be, more nimble and more flexible. However, all this is easier said than done.

Creating a culture of innovation requires sustained support and sensitivity

It’s understandable that individuals, who have worked hard to progress up the management ladder, may see cultural innovation initiatives as a threat – or even a wrecking ball – to the structures they understand and where they thrive. So, with a need to rebuild and develop a business culture, it doesn’t take a brain-box to recognise that those affected will become more risk averse as a result – but things are rarely textbook straightforward.

Organisational learning has demonstrated that matrixed organisations are, with all other things being equal, able to adapt and respond quicker than typically hierarchical organisations. This flatter, project-based structure is probably the direction most organisations should be heading, if their aim is to react to external changes rapidly as market and other external influences come into range. The ability to re-skill parts of the workforce and redeploy quickly can be an enormous advantage to performance. A matrixed organisation is well placed to do that. A flattish structure, with progressive leadership, is all well and good, but they must bring the workforce along too.

Excellent internal communications is another vital element for a modern, effective organisation. It must be genuinely two-way, with a willingness to deal with awkward or challenging topics head on. This is one of the areas where the HR function can play a key, enabling role. It can facilitate these communications, ensuring they are authentic and not simply box-ticking. It can do the heavy lifting years in advance, by nurturing an environment of empowerment. Plus, it can develop systems to ensure blockers are handled positively and involved in the process.

For example, some IT departments resist the introduction of new software or equipment. Often, this is for good reason, with security concerns and the impact on network integrity. It is not a reason – in and of itself – to not do it, however. It is essential the IT department is heavily involved in any decision-making process from the outset. Ultimately, without being too prescriptive, for any organisation to react and evolve, regardless of leadership or technology, a culture of openness and sound internal and external communication must exist.

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Adopting any new technology is a journey 

Being willing to experiment and prototype on a small scale can aid long term success. It is not necessarily the case that a matrix organisation is any better placed to introduce new technology, but some would argue that they can adapt and implement quicker. The ability to trial and scale-up deployment quickly, but carefully, can have a significant influence on the bottom line. There will always be an element of risk when introducing new technology – what is good on paper, doesn’t always translate in the real world. If the culture embraces the fail early, fail often approach, this is fine. Otherwise, the risk is that senior management will back off and pull up the drawbridge. Then investment is lost along with the potential to lose ground to the competition.

It is a high stakes game, but there is plenty that can be done to ensure risks are minimised, so plan carefully and manage expectations at the outset – here, progressive leadership with an open culture, can pay dividends. When an organisation is considering which technology to introduce, there must be a shared understanding across the business that is consistent. Start small, empower your workforce, expect failings, adapt and try again before any organisation-wide deployment.

Technology can help to develop capacity in a workforce and aid the ability to re-skill, up-skill and redeploy when necessary. We truly live in an age of emerging opportunities. Regularly trialling and adopting new technologies to enhance processes and productivity ensures that whole companies are always learning and sharing their knowledge. If the organisational culture sustains a learning environment, then by definition they are open to risk and therefore set up to pre-empt change and adopt the right technology for the individual business context.

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But it’s not easy

There is no point pretending that adopting new technology, or developing a bespoke mobile solution is easy. The introduction of an app to book annual leave is one thing, but to develop a bespoke mobile solution for a team of field engineers, who can interact with client machines and systems back at base remotely can be more challenging.

This is where smart organisations can utilise the skills of a smaller specialist, to work collaboratively. Think about how difficult it is for a large oil tanker to manoeuvre – extremely difficult on its own. This is where agile, small, yet powerful tugs come in, designed for the very purpose, they work with the tanker, to finish the job… partnership working at its best. The same is true with business, where large organisations collaborating with small specialists can develop and trial before scaling up for company-wide roll out. This can be an extremely practical and effective approach rather than just putting it in the ‘too difficult’ box.

It is critical to understand that digital technology alone is not the golden ticket to success in times of uncertainty. Organisations need to adopt the right technologies for their particular circumstances and keep on experimenting. Good cultures create good organisations, or is that the other way around?


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