We are evolving toward an age of networked enterprises, in which the traditional hierarchies of the corporation will be supplanted by self-organizing systems collaborating on digital platforms.
It will be an era of entrepreneurship, distributed leadership, and the continual reorganization of people and resources. It will be a time of disintermediation both within and between organizations. Layers of management will fall; the need for centralized systems and trusted go-betweens will dissipate, if not disappear.
Or so many experts predict.
As for me? Yes, I do believe this is the future toward which we are slowly advancing. Those of us deeper into our careers may not see it come to full fruition during our organizational lives, but the trends are real, and they are already on display if you care to look for them.
And that makes me worry for my friends in the corporate-culture business. Because I’m not sure that culture is going to matter that much in the future — at least not in the ways we conceive of it today.
In a 1996 Sloan Management Review article, MIT Sloan professor emeritus Edgar H. Schein described culture as “a set of basic tacit assumptions about how the world is and ought to be that a group of people share and that determines their perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and, to some degree, their overt behavior.”
Jon Katzenbach, another of the field’s most respected thinkers, defines an organizational culture as “the self-sustaining pattern of behavior that determines how things are done.” It is “made of instinctive, repetitive habits and emotional responses.”
As these definitions suggest, culture is meant to provide a well-rooted sense of purpose within an organization, exemplified by a recognized set of behaviors and shared beliefs. It gets — and keeps — everyone marching in the same direction. Creating and maintaining culture is thus painstaking work. It demands focus and commitment throughout organizations. During my work life, I have been lifted by strong corporate cultures and nearly drowned by weak ones. I have no doubt of culture’s power to align an organization and enliven its workforce.
But that’s history speaking. When we look ahead to life in the digital matrix, there is reason to question culture’s role. Our relationships to institutions will become increasingly defined by the activity in which we are engaged at any given time.