Seeing Organizational Patterns

In today’s organizations the top down, hierarchy approach is seen as the antithesis of the modern, hyper-connected world. However, efforts to shift to emphasize greater transparency and openness have often floundered (holocracy and flat management). We’re learning that the ideal form won’t always result in ideal function.

Noting my recent efforts of going upstream, Jon Husband suggested I read Seeing Organization Patterns: A New Theory and Language of Organizational Design by Robert Keidel. In it Keidel frames organizations as having three distinct variables or elements: autonomy, cooperation and control (sound familiar?). He shares that this triad appears in organizational strategy, structures and it’s systems and when not in the right ratio for the work being done, dysfunction results. Keidel doesn’t imply however that perfect balance is desirable or even possible.

Effective three-variable thinking does not mean maximizing all three variables. Rather, it means emphasizing one or two variables, without neglecting any. 

– Seeing Organizational Patterns, 24

With that said, Keidel notes that organizations will struggle in any of three general ways by:

– overdoing the top priority (autonomy, cooperation or control)
– underdoing the bottom priority
– operating without priority (no strategy at all)

This cooperation/control/autonomy triad is a fascinating lens to look at our organization’s design. Keidel provides many 20th century (yes, 20th. The book was written in the mid 1990’s!) examples throughout that reveal the problems of organizations when they’ve over and under emphasized.

Underdoing and Overdoing
A good example today could be the shifting US Military.  Before 2000 the US military was designed to combat a known enemy with known objectives, a known location and known leadership. In many ways the military was built to repel the likes of Nazi Germany and the USSR. “Loose Lips Sink Ships” and hierarchy and discipline took rigid forms. After conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan however the enemy was now an idea with networked leadership and without a nation-state (al Qaeda, ISIS). The military struggled in its current system, structure and strategies. The top down leadership through experience wasn’t cutting it, and the push now is to create a more responsive organization (teams of teams?) to meet the demands of defeating a dynamic, shifting enemy.

An example (which is the opposite of the military) of an organization I’ve been working with is one that has a very inclusive leadership belief. Partially the industry and partially the culture, this inclusiveness has led to a very loyal, long-term, committed workforce that places a huge emphasis on cooperation and maintaining harmony at all costs. This may sound wonderful but in reality ensuring everyone is on board and happy coupled with a lack of new blood has led to:

  • Delays in action and limited thinking as the organization struggles to surface new ideas let alone implement them.
  • New approaches met with resistances as a “that’s not the way we do it here” response is prevalent.
  • An overemphasis on saving face and meeting emotional needs prolongs the inevitable departure of under-performing employees.

What can be done? Changes to leadership, management and communication (approval process) would help decrease the highly unnecessary levels of inclusiveness and would likely result in lessening the tension that exists between cooperation and responsiveness.

Parallels to Org Learning
Throughout the book Keidel takes aim at common organizational systems such as communication, meetings, leadership, management, teaming, R&D, HR, and security. He doesn’t however address organizational learning which in my opinion underpins them all. It pretty apparent that the 70:20:10 principle fits neatly into the three elements.

Many organizations place emphasis on training (control) and not enough on social and informal learning (cooperation & autonomy). Looking at this through the Keidel’s triadic lens you would see limited innovation and likely slow responsiveness to change. Similarly, if you have an over emphasis on social and informal learning, the lens would reveal employees at risk of having too little foundational knowledge that training typically provides. New employees or employees new to critical tasks could struggle, leading to disengagement and poor performance.


Like any good org design resource, the timeless ideas in Seeing Organizational Patterns respect the uniqueness of each organization and doesn’t prescribe a single, right solution. Rather it serves to reveal where one is successful in their organization’s design so as to enhance and where one is failing, so it can be addressed.

The Future of Learning Is About Less

The future is taking shape and it’s about using what we have first instead of making more. For example, Airbnb and Uber are in the aggregation business. Each recognized the underused assets of property and time and created a platform to organize and commoditize them. And progressive organizations shifted their marketing from create first to curate long ago. This movement of looking, combining, and reusing is gaining momentum everywhere.

A 70:20:10 framework is the organizational learning strategy equivalent of this global movement. The 70 and 20 already happen and much like renewable solar and wind, we only look to harness their energy. The 10 is more content and more time to create and recreate. This isn’t inherently wrong, it’s just not always necessary and can waste time and resources. The beauty of focusing on social and informal learning first is that when each are supported and encouraged there is actually less dependency on training to answer the bell and better still, only the training that is truly excellent and really needed will be produced.

Let’s stop creating more and harness the mental energy being expelled in the work already being done and the interactions taking place to fuel performance.

The 702010 Interplay

One barrier that often presents itself when moving an organization towards a 702010 framework is that the natural interplay between all is overlooked, weakening the whole proposition. Informal, Social and Formal are wrongly dissected and discussed independently. The reality though is that all three 1. exist. 2. exist at varying levels and 3. work together constantly…  especially when we are conscious of it. All we can really do then is make it work together more easily and that’s done through a framework consisting of mindset changes, individual behaviors, organizational structures and technology augmentation.

I scrabbled together the image here in an effort to make this interplay more apparent. It’s important that I note that Informal Learning to me is less about learning in our work than learning through work. Meaning that yes, we can inject resources, “micro-learning” and search capabilities into the work context but it’s more about reflection and experiential learning; extracting learning as Charles Jennings has noted.  

  1. Social improves Formal Learning – social interaction works as a feedback loop for training efforts and should be encouraged. Outside of actual performance data – open, honest conversation about new knowledge and skills obtained in training situations is critical for improving formal learning efforts.
  2. Social informs Informal Learning – this relationship is very blurry as there is much overlap between social and informal learning. Conversation between people, and observations of one another’s behaviors leads to new application, ideas and reflection in the workflow.
  3. Informal inspires Social Learning – doing our actually work leads to new ideas about the work. Sometimes through eureka moments, sometimes through frustration. Work undoubtedly drives the most workplace conversation.
  4. Formal influences Informal Learning– training has a direct impact on doing (or ideally it does). Work-learning (informal) is greatly influenced by becoming faster or more efficient because of formal efforts. It’s also in the work itself that we can best reflect on new ideas and skills.
  5. Informal (through social) informs Formal Learning – here again, the blur between social and informal learning. Training can be positively modified due to both effective and ineffective work practices shared through social interaction.
  6. Formal inspires Social Learning – A great part of organizational Social Learning is in overtly sharing what works and what doesn’t with others. When training presents us with new ideas or skills we put them into practice and through conversation and modeling we can create greater contextual understanding for others.

As far as the components of a Framework I mentioned earlier, it starts with Mindsets where we help others realize the existence of 702010 and more see training as an expensive last resort, not the first option. Next it requires Individual Behaviors, If L&D, then serving as performance consultants not order takers and sniffing out then amplifying and enhancing where and when collaborative work is working. Additionally, we must examine Organizational Structures or systems. Many systems actually work against the efforts to enhance social and informal learning. In particular rewards, communication flow and management concepts need to be addressed. Finally,  Technology. Tech really only serves to augments this natural occurring system, it’s not a requirement. All social technology is primarily the same, working to support community, collaboration and sharing. Social is at the center of 702010 and social technology is the catalyst that really gets it moving.

Wherever you are in the 702010 discussion, it’s important to remember that 702010 is a principle and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Organization, Heal Thyself

I hurt my back pretty bad back in February. Shortly after the injury I reluctantly went to a Chiropractor. I say reluctantly as it’s not something I completely understood or believed in as I have always been conditioned to accept traditional medicine; surgery, medications, etc. What I learned from the experience is that Chiropractic medicine is about the body’s ability to heal itself. Generally speaking (and likely oversimplifying it) when the body is in alignment, effective communication happens through nerves and blood flow and the body maintains health. This got me wondering about how poorly organizations are designed today, they are misaligned resulting in:

  • cultures that need to be changed,
  • the creation of blanket HR policies to address small, singular problems
  • structures that support star chamber-like decision making in times of crisis,
  • procedures developed to secure consistency and conformity but stifled innovation and creativity
  • training being overused to address performance issues
  • a default to meritless, inflexible hierarchy

Everything is out of alignment (with the way the world works today).

So, similar to the chiropractic view of the body if an organization is aligned correctly, when the systems and the people can effectively and efficiently communicate, won’t it to function properly?

Gwynne Dyer wrote an exceptional article a few years ago about Democracy, nation building and the Middle East. From it I caught a quote that really resonated:

Tyranny was the solution to what was essentially a communication problem.

With a slight adjustment; replacing the word tyranny with hierarchy the remainder of the message holds true. Hierarchy was the answer to what was essentially a communication problem… in the industrial era. As organizations grew a top down systems of communication and power was need to keep every part of the organization informed.

Today we no longer have an excuse for communication problems or at least we shouldn’t. Psychology, sociology and technology are opening our eyes to new, better ways of organizing people. Hierarchy should be being transformed because of the emerging obviousness of Wirearchy, yet this isn’t really happening. And in learning, the principle of 70:20:10 is real but oft ignored as training continues to hold a tight grip.

What then if organizations just focused on improving communication, putting “social” first so to speak? Aligning all, making ideas, initiatives, information more obvious. Would unnecessary training, procedures, and policy diminish? And isn’t this what every small company has by default (albeit unconsciously)? With a small numbers of people, they are in tune, open, connected and transparent – then unfortunately lose it as they grow. This doesn’t have to happen today, as I said, we have the knowledge and technology to ensure this if we could just let go to our traditional beliefs as I did about medicine.

In the 21st century how the organization needs to communicate should determine it’s design and being and remaining aligned is the key to a responsive organization.

The Unintended Consequences of 70:20:10

I’ve always struggled with the 70:20:10 principle. Not that it exists, and certainly not that it isn’t something that should be supported by organizations. No, my issue has always been with the idea that it’s primarily about learning.

The 70 and the 20 (+/-90%) are simply about pulling; pulling information for work, pulling insights out of our own work, pulling ideas from the rich flows of the Internet and pulling on others’ knowledge to influence our thinking in the work we do.

So it’s about work. But not just in getting learning closer to work. 70:20:10 is potentially much more subversive. It’s an agent of organizational change for those leaders interested in that sort of thing.

At its core 70:20:10 emphasizes autonomy and interdependence over control and dependence and this is where 70:20:10 shifts from being just about supporting leaning to something more transformational. A 70:20:10 Framework encourages people to be reflective of their work. This is far from a traditional practice. In doing so, it presents opportunity to improve the work product/process but also invites the opportunity to fundamentally change the job itself, time to pause and reflect can do that. 70:20:10 also inspires people to seek, to step out of the traditional channels of organizational information flows (hierarchy) and find new answers. The 20 is social. When people are supported by technology that enables them to more openly share and collaborate, networks are revealed, new ones form and knowledge is released from the most unlikely of sources.

Each of these are openings that go beyond simply learning to do better or do more or do faster. Each can lead to a change in how we view authority, knowledge, leadership, and power in an organization.

Organization’s are complex; many parts, systems and structures working – sometimes with and sometimes against each other. In complexity, a small change can have dramatic effects across systems and we need to be conscious of this if we desire change.

A 70:20:10 Framework is a small change. It sets out to change organizational learning yet has the very real potential to change the organization itself.