The academic field of organizational behaviour has been around for about a half century. However, as the accompanying OB in Action: Some Things Never Really Change clearly indicates, problems facing managers of human organizations have been around since the beginning of civilization. Embedded in the case are many topics covered, for example, charismatic leadership, management of conflict, empowerment, management of change and nonfinancial incentives.
The problems with human organizations and the solutions over the ages have not really changed that much, the emphasis and surrounding context certainly have changed. For example, in the 1980 and 1990s managers were preoccupied with restructuring their organizations to improve productivity and meet the competitive challenges in the international marketplace and quality expectations of customers. Although the resulting “lean and mean” organizational offered some short-run benefits in terms of lowered costs and improved productivity if they continued to do business as usual they would not be able to meet current or future challenges. As a Harvard Business Review article argues ‘these are scary times for managers’. The singular reason given for these frightening times the increasing danger of disruptive change.
The World Is Flat, he identifies dramatic forces of change affecting the 21st century from geopolitical (e.g. the fall of the Berlin Wall) technological (e.g. Internet based platforms and work flow software) and business processes (e.g. open sourcing, outsourcing and insourcing). An example of insourcing would be UPS taking over the entire logistics process of a company from factory to warehouse to customer to repair to even customer payment collection. This new “flat” world has not only levelled the playing field for firms around the globe, but also has made collaborating individuals and groups the competitive advantages.
The 21st Century environment requires new thinking and new thinking and new ways of managing. As another example, take the disappearance of tightly defined and programmed jobs. The tendency is to think that this may be happening in the dot-com firms or in high profile firms such as Microsoft but not in the mainline companies such as an old established firm such as Koch industries based in Wichita, Kansas which is into chemical, agriculture, financial services, and oil and gas. Yet the head of the Human Resources Department at Koch notes that they no longer use the old approach of a complex system of job classifications, pay grades, promotional charts and job descriptions. Why don’t Amazon, Microsoft and Koch Industries have defined jobs? Because the nature of work is changing so rapidly that rigid job structures impede the work to be done now, and that may drastically change the following year, month, or even week.
This new “Flat” world, non-job environment is representative of the disruptive, discontinuous change that is taking place now in the foreseeable future. It represents a new paradigm, a new way of thinking about the workplace.
Some things never really change:
A powerful charismatic leader is having problems. A well-known consultant is called in to help. The consultant notices that the leader tries to handle all problems and conflicts of his people himself. People queue up before his office; because he is overwhelmed he cannot handle all the business. So the consultant has a private talk with the leader and tells him to structure his organization by delegating authority, empowering subordinates to handle the workload. These subordinates should be selected not only on their leadership abilities, but also on their character. They should be truthful not driven by material gain. The new structure should resolve all daily issues at the lowest possible level; only the big and difficult issues should be brought before the leader. He should focus on strategy — on dealing with the higher authority, on establishing new approaches and teaching these to the people, on showing them the way to go and the work to be alone. The case states that the leader listens to the consultant and carries out the reorganization which is a success and the consultant returns home.
All the speculation and speeches about the challenges in the new century have come and gone. Now trying to effectively manage 21st century organizational has become the harsh reality. Ask anyone today management professors, practitioners, or students – what the major challenges are in today’s environment and the answer will be fairly consistent: An uncertain economy and turbulent geopolitics preoccupy everyone’s concerns. However, at the organization level, advanced information technology, globalization, diversity, and trying to solve ethical problems and dilemmas come to the fore. These are unquestionably major issues facing contemporary organizations. However, the basic premise and assumptions of the fields of organizational behaviour in particular are that managing the people, the human resources of an organization have been, are, and will continue to be, the major challenge and critical competitive advantage.