People, Organization, Technology?

I see my friend Dave Snowden is extending/rethinking/refining his Cynefin framework, which emboldens me to follow through on an idea that won’t leave me.  More completely, an idea that challenges some basic axioms and cliches that have haunted my PowerPoint/Keynote presentations for years.

Headed for my personal trash bin:  ‘People, Process, Technology.’  There are 298,000 hits on the Google machine for that phrase (in quotes) – so some will no doubt disagree.

From a theoretical point of view, the Cynefin framework was a giant first clue that this triplet was endangered, and yet I found myself using it years after knowing better.  From a practical perspective, the more we learn about successful open government examples and social business experiments – the evidence became clearer.

The enemy:  Process.  In retrospect, this is obvious, and it is possible I am the last one to realize this.  For complex systems, for innovation efforts, for creativity – process engineering is not only the wrong approach, it is a mistake.  These epiphany is still in its embryonic phase, but it may be that any work that is amenable to a ‘process‘ should be automated as much as possible. For the rest, technology should enable serendipity rather than predictive process.

It may be that simple.  It may be People, Organization, Technology; although we should not be in a rush to replace a failed triplet with another.  In discussions about ‘social business,’ we describe some fairly radical organizational structures.  In fact, my definition for Social Business is as follows:

Social Business refers to an organization whose structures and processes defer to the natural systems of human interaction. This transformation from the 19th century industrial age organizational model is enabled by conversation-centered technologies that allow for low-latency, low-effort flow of information across the workforce – laterally as well as vertically.  It is characterized by flattened decision cycles, real-time situational awareness, creativity, and a capacity for agility realized through adaptive responses to changes in its environment.  

This definition needs to be shorter and may be missing some elements.  Nevertheless, this is where I am right now.  How did I get here?  From a casual conversation that went like this:

“Why can’t our internal collaboration platforms be more like Facebook or LinkedIn?”

Immediately, it struck me.  This isn’t the right question.  The right question is:  “Why do we work in organizations where natural interactions and instincts are discouraged?”  The reason that consumer social media technologies experience a high adoption rate – without the ‘benefit’ of corporate training – is because they align with human aspiration.  We want to share with friends.  We want to strengthen our tribal affiliations.  We want to help where help is needed.  We solve business problems over lunch.  We sketch out innovative ideas on bar napkins.  This is how we live – but not how most of us work.

Others have written about new organizational structures, such as heterarchy, wirearchy, et al.  We cannot fall into the trap of the last decade, where “flat organizations” were supposed to destroy hierarchy.  Sociology is not extinct.  But radical new organizations are possible and are in fact happening.  A dear friend now works for a consulting firm where people come together into ad hoc teams to tackle projects.  The firm itself is just the backplane, providing health care, office space, etc – in exchange for a percentage of revenue.  The consultants/engineers/developers/project managers self-organize around opportunities.  The morale is high, the reputation is strong, and the life balance is exquisite.  This model does not suit junior employees, and would not work for many areas outside professional services – but it represents a triumph of natural systems over machine processes.  It maximizes crew methodologies for client value.

Let’s consider that the unit of analysis is not the process, but the organization.  People, Organization, Technology.  Let’s run this up the flagpole and count the salutes.

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12 Responses to People, Organization, Technology?

  1. Christian Smith-Socaris says:

    I appreciate you sharing this observation, but I do wonder how you balance the cognitive and time demands of a more networked structure if you don’t create a lot of process that makes certain interactions easy. Perhaps I’m thinking about this from the perspective of an organization that really has converted, and not a hybrid that is still full of process. I’m working in an organization that comes at this from the network side and we’ve found that a lack of clear, repeatable business processes and information flows creates very high demands on individual participation that can sap the productivity of the network.

    • jbordeaux says:

      Sorry for the delay in responding, and thanks for taking the time to comment. I’m struck at the belief that process improves interactions. I don’t mean that as a challenge, as I realize that certain ‘back office’ flows and customer service functions are made easier through process.

      I suppose I am evolving on this idea, mellowing a bit, by realizing that the processes that thwart progress are those misapplied to creative functions. I just keep coming back to the fact that we manage a host of interactions and shifting identities outside of the business context – with little established process to guide us. We move through vast social contexts, willfully and happily for the most part.

      How, I wonder, would process help interactions with unexpected partners, driven by unanticipated events (DoD Information Sharing Strategy)? I would love to hear more about your the challenges in your enterprise, would you mind sharing more here?

  2. Kelcy says:

    I don’t see any way to dispense with process. No organization is born new but must come out of the ashes of an old organization with rich processes (albeit perhaps obsolete). I’ve been thinking about this in context of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). There has been a lot of discussion on whether this new way of educating will replace universities. While they are working to use technology to reach out to people, much of the format is stodgy and reminiscent of a regular university where the students all sit and listen to the professors and take exams that don’t have to be peer-reviewed unless they are free-form like an essay. There’s a little new and a lot of old think. The same is true at least of government organization. Very rarely are they able to let go of old processes and instead pile on new ones that make it seem like change is happening.

    • jbordeaux says:

      Sorry for the delay – thanks for your thoughts here. As another pointed out, we may need the ‘process’ word simply to be understood by clients and others. It may be true that every organization arises from the ashes of previous ones, but there are counter-examples of firms arising in response to previous experience. Consider the start-up or skunkworks model; often originating with more of a manifesto (or mission, thank you Steve) than a set of organizing processes.

      Overall, I agree with you. We will tend to pile on new processes, in a never-ending belief that adjusting process and organizational charts is the only way to adapt the enterprise to its environment. My thoughts here are aspirational – I believe there is a better way.

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  4. Steve says:

    When I think of technology, I don’t just think of digital stuff. I consider any item in the “toolkit” to be a wonder of technology. Maybe process fits into this same category of technology, tools, organization, policy, etc..

    One of the things I see ignored when supports are provided is the tendency of people to form cultures within a greater organizational culture. Ignorance or disregard of cultural reception of a technology implementation can, and probably will, result in a short lifecycle for a solution.

    If we were going to form a hierarchy of 3, perhaps they should be:

    Culture > People > Supports

    Organizations provide supports (including tools, technology, and process) for people to meet their missions. Supports include tools, technology, and process. People connect with missions through an organizational culture.

    - Supports are FOR people but MUST consider culture.
    - Culture IS shaped by People in the natural course of executing missions together.
    - Supports (process, technology, tools, policy) CANNOT directly change culture.
    - In a broad sense, culture has a greater influence on people than supports.

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  6. Steve says:

    There’s another element or dynamic at play here as well. If we add Missions to the mix, we can start to draw corollaries to relationships and exceptions.

    Missions > Culture > People > Supports

    - People form cultures to connect with missions.
    - If missions are at odds with people, tragedy is likely to follow.
    - Supports should help people accomplish the organization’s missions.
    - Cultures will rise to oppose supports BECOMING missions.

  7. Gary Schirr says:

    You are far from the last to conclude that process controls and innovation are not synergistic! Many managers still believe that six sigma or another control must be applied to their innovative efforts.

  8. Neil Olonoff says:


    I agree heartily. Although my difficulties with the People, Process and Technology framework go beyond the process problem.

    I very much appreciate and agree with your thoughts on process and social processes. My thoughts on process boil down to roughly this: knowledge work is too complex to codify into process. When we do attempt to optimize processes, inevitably we deviate from the path, anyway.

    My concern with PPT is that it is way too high level to have any explanatory power, and anything you try to fit into it shares equally among P, P and T.

  9. Rotkapchen says:

    Thanks for mulling on this a bit more. I cringe when I have to use the process word, but often find it is useful (we still have to deal with the cognitive assimilation of our recipients).

    It also hearkens back to queues I saw when mentally creating the data model of all data models, all activities came down to transactions or interactions.

    I think the biggest difference for me when embracing a complexity mindset is that we’re not dealing with process as a workflow, we’re enabling the flow of work, which to me is entirely different (semantics aside). Sadly, the workflow mindset tends to create unrealistic ‘ideals’ of how things ‘should’ work — reality is never that neat (nor probably should it be).

    The design thinking praxis of mysteryheuristicalgorithmbinary code reminds us that process is simply an algorithm. If we haven’t added back in the human (heuristic) and spiritual (mystery) factors, there’s no sustainability/resilience. I’m reminded of the cartoon plastered on IT walls as early as the 80s “…and then a miracle happens” — there’s a whole lot of stuff that happens in the ‘mystery’ space that we’re almost afraid to ‘name’ (recognize). But it’s very real.

    The more ideal organization that you spoke of embraces all 4 dimensions, but as compared to most other models relies heavily on mysteryheuristic.

    And Steve is right, I tend to lean on Clayton Christensen’s definition of Technology (which was sadly somewhat ‘hidden’ in the introduction of “The Innovator’s Dilemma”): “…technology…means the processes by which an organization transforms labor, capital, materials, and information into products and services of greater value.”

    When you consider that technology comes from the same root as technique, it is clear that process is embodied by and inferred by the term ‘technology’. As well, when comparing it back to the Design Thinking praxis, it falls in line with where I normally align technology, which is to the algorithmbinary code portion. This circles back to my earlier mention of process as an algorithm (although most companies try to lock theirs down into no variability, which then makes them ‘binary code’).

    When we wonder why we have so much trouble with things that we’ve tried to shape into algorithm and binary code, the answers can always be found in the missing realities of the heuristics and the mystery. [Ref:

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