Simon Terry

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Returning to Autonomy

Ubiquitous communication is taking us back to approaches to organisation of work that predated modern communications. The challenge now is not lack of communication. The challenge is the complexity of ubiquitous communication.

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If you were setting up a business in 1816 and you were going to operate over any distance, you needed to rely on your people to operate autonomously. Through much of the 19th Century as the telegraph, railroads and eventually automobiles arrived, communication and transportation remained slow and costly.  If you relied on instructing a distant workforce through more than an occasional letter or shipment, you were in danger of losing your business. Bureaucracy had been created to enable management on merit and talents and to provide consistent decision making to the management of local autonomy. People hired for trust, autonomy and the creative talents to manage a business because there was no other way to manage local affairs in a volatile changing world.

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By 1916, the cost of communications and transport had fallen significantly. The technology of management responded by leveraging the communications technology to measure, simplify, standardise and organise. Risk, discretion and variation were eliminated to achieve economies of scale and consistency of quality. Communication technologies enabled the end of autonomy, replacing it with policy, process, hierarchy and management. Bureaucracy enabled by communication took over the art of management in a fast global world. People hired for experience, organisational fit and ability to execute.

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In 2016, digital communications are ubiquitous, logistic networks cover the world and through technology like 3D printing and digital services we are even beginning to explore options to avoid transportation costs entirely. We have passed beyond exchanging, measuring and recording enough information to manage the business. Now there is too much information for everyone.  Employees, managers, customers and stakeholders are overwhelmed and unable to properly understand and respond to the system of interconnected processes that exist across organisations. 

In this complex adaptive system, we can no longer expect an all powerful centre to see and manage the processes, policies and business. We have returned to autonomy. People are hired for trust, autonomy and the creative talents to manage a business because there is no other way to manage complex affairs in a volatile connected and rapidly changing world.

The organisations that succeed in an interconnected world will be those who enable their people to respond autonomously to their environment, to lead experimentation and adaptation and to apply creative human intelligence to improving the system. New models of management are being developed now to create these responsive organisations


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