How organizations handle information
How would it make you feel at work if you were suddenly given access to a stack of sensitive corporate information you didn’t need for your job? Probably as nervous as carrying a Tesco bag of banknotes up the
High Street to the bank – unless you expect a directorship. Otherwise you’d not want the responsibility, though you’d probably be flattered for being trusted with it. In the command-and-control organization, everything is predict-
able and planned in advance. Everyone has watertight job descriptions that don’t overlap with anyone else’s, and the job descriptions determine the information each person needs. The structure of the information system mirrors the tree-like reporting structure of the organization chart, and access to information is only assigned on a ‘need-to-know’ basis. This is because if people lower down were trusted to know as much as those higher up, the status and power of those in the upper levels would be undermined, threatening the whole structure. Information means power and influence; at all levels, managers only release it when it benefits them to do so. OK, this is a stereotype, overstated to make a point. But everyone
knows what it feels like to work in that environment, because we all experienced it as children. At home and school, parents and teachers had absolute power and knew everything, while we were powerless and supposed to know only what we were taught. The world is changing fast, but organizations very similar to this stereotype still survive today. Working for them is not all bad: life is simple. You are not responsible for anything outside your job description for a number of hours each month, and in return you get paid a fixed salary. In the new organization (sorry, here comes another stereotype)
people have to grow up quickly. Nothing can be predicted far in advance, there are no detailed job descriptions and no organization chart. People are expected to use a range of skills, and take responsibility for a number of tasks in collaboration with several self-managing work teams. The structure of the information system is a web-like network of links that allows information to be accessed from whoever has it, to whoever might need it, and most information held is freely available to all. Trust and influence is not given by status or position, but earned by the quality and reliability of a person’s contributions to team results. Life is complex: you negotiate your roles on teams, share responsibility for everything, and in return you get paid a salary and
possibly share a profit-related bonus equally with team members. Exciting but scary.