Governments and most businesses will readily understand the term ‘infrastructure’. It is a collective term for roads, railways, airports, ports, telecommunications networks, supply pipelines etc. It is all to do with movement and these networks are all ‘hard’ i.e. they are made out of steel, concrete and copper and they can all be touched.
Infrastructure is not quite the same as structure in an organisational context. Structure implies rigidity, a silo mentality and in many cases an adherence to the past (especially in terms of behaviour). The new Organizational structures of the future will be more like infrastructures, offering support rather than controlling. Unlike the past, future (infra) structures will be wildly different, varying according to culture, market niche, company size etc. They will of course all have one common theme – people.
People will be connected together in all sorts of ways. They are the valuable assets of the organization and must be looked after by Human Resources, connected by IT and rewarded by the boss. But there is more due to our dependence on intangible assets such as creativity, know how and culture as well as social interaction to create and exploit ideas.
For our businesses to function successfully, these things too must move around. Attempts have often been made in the past to codify these ideas, transmit them to another place and then try and extract both the message and the meaning of what has been received. Try having an email exchange with an angry colleague and you will understand the problems.
We also want things to travel in ways that are not constrained by boundaries and which certainly do not travel in straight lines. Just like the ripples on a pond we might wish some things to be broadcast, such as company culture. And like a networked computer system we will need some sort of storage and perhaps some form of maintenance function to ensure that everything runs smoothly.
When thinking of communicating within a corporate environment we often think of sending things out (pushing) or receiving from others (pulling). What about when things just sort of slosh about, and proceed at their own pace or when disruptive events occur and we need a system that repairs or heals itself? We need a new type of infrastructure, one that is invisible and which connects everybody to everyone else. It must allow meaning, intuition, creativity and emotion to flow with no bottlenecks and no burst pipes. What we need therefore is the right sort of ‘network’ – a soft infrastructure rather than a hard structure .
Based on concepts such as coaching, action learning and knowledge agents this might be somewhat strange, but it is all possible. Can we afford not to create such infrastructures in our organisations or in society in general?