The organisation of the future will not have a hierarchical structure chart like most of today’s organisations. It is most likely to resemble a Twitter or social media connection map where people and functions are connected by many lines and importance (if it is measured at all) is determined by the number of connections or conversations that take place.
These connections are not simply routes for passing data such as telephone lines, these are routes where data, information and knowledge flow backwards and forwards. These are multi level conversations and they are key to Innovation.
Currently such conversations do exist but not throughout organisations. They are often identified as ‘water cooler’ or ‘coffee machine’ conversations and many backward thinking managers brand them as gossip or a waste of time. In some cases they do have a point!
Why do we want such conversations in the first place? Ideas tend to come into being when problems are aired amongst groups of people. They then get refined as part of conversations and solutions created or retrieved from the rich banks of knowledge that exist in our heads, libraries and computer systems. Conversations are something that we are used to having, after all we are social creatures.
So how do we make these conversations mainstream and encourage them? First of all the attitude of management must change to allow a whole range of things to happen. We could encourage conversations around the water coolers but Health and Safety issues might prevent too many gatherings. We should identify a) where people converse b) for how long c) for what purpose d) how we capture results. If conversations are short then having white boards or flip charts near to our coffee machines might help but for long exchanges then we might need more seats around our desks or a number of small ‘islands’ in our buildings where impromptu conversations might take place.
Employees also need to know that it is ok to have these conversation and that they can be continued using other modes of communication if need be. They should also be encouraged to eavesdrop on conversations that might be of interest to them.