Academic journal article Organisational and Social Dynamics

Leading Organisations without Boundaries: "Quantum" Organisation and the Work of Making Meaning

Academic journal article Organisational and Social Dynamics

Leading Organisations without Boundaries: "Quantum" Organisation and the Work of Making Meaning

Article excerpt


Jack Welch of General Electric took the view, "the most restrictive organisational boundaries are in the minds of those within an organisation" (Ashkenas, Ulrich, Jick, & Kerr, 2002). In order that his organisation could better thrive, he called for a "boundaryless organisation". General Electric (GE) did not get rid of its boundaries, but it did rearrange them vertically, horizontally, by industry, and by geography so that they were more permeable. GE used this approach to,

transform itself over and over again to keep up with-and ahead of-the global Internet economy. GE was able to acquire and integrate dozens of organisations and become a world leader in the process of acquisition integration, and to streamline its work and reduce costs by millions of dollars. At the same time, GE was shifting many of its businesses more towards services and toward the development of global markets. (Ashkenas, Ulrich, Jick, & Kerr, 2002)

Nevertheless, GE as an organisation still took a "one-sided" approach to the way it targeted its chosen markets. Its relationships to its customers were defined by the products and services it had planned to provide.

The Rt Hon. Jeremy Hunt MP, the Health Secretary responsible for the UK's National Health Service (NHS), recently gave a speech entitled: "Will we rise to the challenge of an ageing society?" (Hunt, 2013). He argued that if the social and health care systems were to help people with long term conditions, then more would need to be done across both systems. He pointed out,

unlike when the NHS was founded 65 years ago, now half of General Practitioner (GP) appointments and two thirds of outpatient or Accident & Emergency visits are for people with long term conditions. Indeed this group of people, many of whom are older people, are now responsible for 70% of the total health and care budget.

GE is a hugely complicated organisation, containing many different component organisations, but all of which are ultimately answerable vertically to its Board for their economic performance in terms of "one-sided" definitions of their businesses. The "health care system" of which Jeremy Hunt spoke is different, however, even though it is also made up of many different component organisations. Central government may be the source both of funding for the NHS and of the regulations governing its performance. In demanding of this system, however, that it "treat the person not the condition", the Health Secretary is saying that it should be ultimately accountable "horizontally" to the citizen-with-the-condition1, and not "vertically" to central government. From the point of view of any one provider within the social and health care systems, this makes the relationship to the patient's demand "multi-sided". As with GE, the service demanded from the provider may require many different component organisations to work together. Unlike GE, however, the service has to be defined in terms of how it interacts with other services within the context of the patient's life to affect the patient's long-term health, making the demand "multi-sided". The role of central government's governance should be to make this possible, but this is not the same challenge as that faced by GE.

To meet this challenge, we must consider what happens when an organisation has to respond to the "multi-sided" nature of its clients' demands one-by-one, being many different things at the same time as it takes up a "multi-sided" relationship to each of its clients differently. In a sense, it becomes a different organisation for each client. Increasing digitalisation and internet use lead every client to expect more dynamic interaction between suppliers and their personal situation with its context and timing. As clients, we are all familiar with examples from health care, financial services, air travel, using mobile apps on our smartphones or speedy home delivery of online shopping (Dahlstrom & Edelman, 2013). …

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