Sunday, April 3, 2011

Humanoid Organizations: Robotic Efficiency with Human Empathy

The human body is an exquisite example of organization that has been so well designed by the Almighty; with each limb of the body performing assigned functions remarkably consistently for decades as ordained. The robot is a marvelous example of organization so well designed by the human being; with the machine being programmed to perform designed functions in assigned operating conditions. It is, however, paradoxical that organizations that are brought together by human beings to manage themselves as groups aspiring for certain goals should suffer from serious shortcomings. Perhaps, organizational experts have to take an entirely new look at the way organizations are designed and managed. This may require a cultural catalyst rather than a structural lens or process filter.

2D structures

The conventional organization structures are two dimensional. The two dimensional organizations (2D organizations) typically organize themselves on certain easy to relate dimensions; functions and deliveries. Functions could be line or field functions such as research, procurement, logistics, production, quality, sales and service, and staff or corporate functions such as personnel, planning, information technology, finance and strategy. Deliveries could be in terms of products, services, businesses and geographies. Many times, larger 2D organizations house a number of smaller 2D organizations, like a manufacturing site housing several line functions and a few staff functions. The 2D organizations are governed by lines of reporting vertically and lines of collaboration horizontally.

As a result of the 2D format, different types of organizations have been developed; from a simple functional organization to a focused product organization, an integrated business organization, a project organization and finally a complex matrix organization. Organization pundits may agree or disagree on the relative merits or demerits of different organization structures but are unanimous that each organizational format has its own merits but also generates its own problems. None produces a completely holistic and harmonious solution. As an organization grows in scale and scope, and adds more products and geographies these problems become more acute. As headquarter organizations grapple with the challenges of controlling and coordinating while empowering and enabling growth, organization design becomes a catalyst as well as a constraint.

Design principles

Organization designs are based on certain two dimensional sets of thinking. For example, the principles of span of control and line of command determine the basic departmental unitization that is the core of any organization structure. The principles of specialization and diversification determine the basic design principles that govern redesign of an organization to support competitiveness or growth. The principles of line and staff determine who executes and delivers and who plans or supports. The principles of direct and indirect reporting or functional and administrative reporting enable multiple individuals and departments to interact with each other. Despite such principles which delineate organizations neatly on paper, organizations in practice tend to be in constant search of operational stability and harmony, let alone synergy.

Conventional organizational performance is monitored based on linearity and latency. It is expected that organizational units strive for linearity in performance, constantly seeking improvements with time. It is also expected that there is always a hidden capability in an individual that could be harnessed with opportunity. By adding scalable modules of organizational units and enhancing talent realization through development and motivation, organizations seek to grow and compete. The entire process, however, gets impacted by human behavior in organizations that operates, at times collaboratively, at times disruptively and most times unpredictably, in completely different manners than envisaged. The discourse on whether people make the organization or the organization moulds the people is incomplete.

Human and robotic models

An individual is designed by nature to constantly evolve. God has designed the various parts of the body not only to perform certain functions but also to excel in those functions with age and experience. He has set visible and invisible limits to performance but with great degrees of latitude. He has also designed the body to set error alarms through pain or sickness for adverse developments. The human body can accept a lot of environmental adversity and process astonishing levels of toxicity. Many times, however, the intangible parts of the human being, the heart, mind and soul, have significant influence on the human being. The human body is a great example of a single organ with unfathomed capability, the brain, regulating the various limbs voluntarily and involuntarily.

A robot is designed by the human being to perform programmed tasks. The degrees of freedom and the limits of performance are well set by the capabilities of the mechanical parts and the electronic parts, including the computer, installed in the robot. The robot can surely and certainly perform all the tasks it is designed for, but no more. There is no capability for evolution, influence, linearity or latency in a robot. The robot excels in repetitive and hazardous tasks that a human being would be incapable of doing. A robot supplements in some cases and substitutes in other cases its own creator. The robot is a great example of multiple components with defined capability performing even humanly impossible tasks based on built-in capabilities and programmed thinking.

Fallible organizations

In contrast to either an individual or a robot, the typical organization which is also a created entity is a visible enigma. As it is made up of several persons with different types of personal and professional backgrounds and different levels of education and experience an organization tends to be pluralistic. Pluralism has its merits but works disadvantageously when an organization needs to function with a single minded focus. Worse still, pluralism becomes a liability if individualism dominates the functional style. As a result, it would appear that the structure of an organization is less important than the process of managing an organization and the absolute levels of individual talent are less important than an ability to evolve in a competitive environment.

Organizational fallibility is tragic when compared with genetic background of the other two comparators, the individual or the robot; fallibility here is defined in a broad sense of failure to live up to its own potential or the external opportunity. Individuals have no control over as to how they come into this world and therefore they come in with an extremely high level of external dependency. Robots are programmed to perfection by design and the objectives and boundaries of performance are preset. Unlike these two comparators, organizations are set up based on specific plans, appropriate resourcing, validation by investors or lenders and finally with leadership. Organizations pursue specific opportunities for a planned play rather than resort to a random play. An individual has only his or her brain to depend on, and a robot has no brain of its own. Organizations, on the other hand, have multiple brains of their members and hence immense potential for physical and intellectual scalability. By concept, therefore, organizations need to be infallible.

Fallibility by design

Often, entrepreneurial organizations tend to be highly successful despite resource constraints and lack of designated organization experts. Many voluntary service organizations tend to be successful without elaborate formats. As the former become larger, post-success and as the latter seek to corporatize themselves, organizations suddenly become fallible, as if by design. The reasons are not far to seek. The entrepreneurial and service organizations tend to be characterized by a strong sense of purpose, a high level of passion and a do-or-die approach. As organizations become larger, purpose gets to be discovered through elaborate planning exercises, passion gets substituted by process and the do-or-die determination gets replaced by get-appraised-right approach. Organizations tend to overcome these by job descriptions, morphing of organization structures, vision-strategy exercises and learning and development inputs.

Unfortunately, the design infallibilities of a conventional organization tend to mutate and negate the corrective actions. Planning exercises suffer from top-down approaches, with an assumed view that broader participation delays planning. The inadequacy is compounded by the reluctance of the larger organization to participate, with a misplaced opinion that planning is inferior to execution. The larger the organization, the scarcer becomes the passion, often getting viewed as a preserve of senior leaders. Instant feedback that marks the entrepreneurial organizations gets staggered by annual performance management processes. The methodologies of corrective actions that are usually adopted also do not match up to the needs. Job descriptions tend to be static and in any case get overtaken by the metrics. This contrasts with an operating level requirement that if the standard operating procedures are followed the output would be consistent and compliant. Each structural change brings in its wake new problems while not necessarily solving the old problems. Vision-strategy exercises rarely substitute for passion while effective learning and development needs sustainable on the job reinforcement.

Humanoid organizations

Humanoid is an automation that resembles a human being. Robotics experts believe that in the coming years humanoids would be designed and developed to mimic targeted human thinking and operations pushing the boundaries as much as possible. In the context of the current organizational discussion, a humanoid organization would be one which combines the best of the features of an individual and a robot. Creativity, enterprise, independence, empowerment and intellectualism that are the hallmarks of human existence need to be fused with the precision, perfection, clarity, compliance and reliability of a robot. Humanoid organizations need to reflect dedicated humanism that works with laser like focus towards its goals. This is neither an esoteric nor infeasible concept.

The Japanese society (not merely the corporate society) emerges as the archetype of a humanoid organization. The manner in which Japan, Inc goes about institutionalizing design creativity, production efficiency, quality excellence and customer service on a platform of a tightly run and diligently compliant planning and execution system is legendary. The stoic and resilient yet compassionate and collaborative manner in which the entire Japanese society went through the unprecedented ferocity of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis over the last several weeks illustrates the remarkable human organization that Japan is. Clearly, the concept of humanoid organization is relevant and impactful. There is, however, a strong factor of cultural homogeneity that provides the right eco-system for the humanoid organizations.

Managing paradoxes

To be a successful humanoid organization, the firm or the entity has to recognize and manage paradoxes, individually and collectively. This needs to be a cultural capability rather than a structural or process competency. Creativity and compliance, for example are seen to be contradictory. It is, however, necessary to be compliant to current procedures and plans but creative to develop new products and processes. In a sense, professionals of a successful organization must comply with the need to be creative while understanding how compliance to values such as safety, quality and productivity generates the profitability to sustain creativity. Similarly, the paradox between diversity of thoughts and unity of purpose is something an aspiring humanoid organization must aim for.

Paradoxes are often generated in, and amplified through, day to day operations as well. The paradoxes relate to perceived inconsistencies between macro strategies and micro execution, disconnects between global needs and local deliveries, firm level value chain and department level activity set, and finally between public posturing and private engagement of team members. Comprehensive awareness of corporate goals and strategies, timed execution agenda and end-to-end value chain mapping as well as a clear articulation of the basic principles by which an organization lives by also eliminates paradoxes. For example, the policy of the Toyota Production System policy that stops assembly line production even for a small defect serves to send out a strong quality message across the organization.

Humanoid transformation

For an organization to become a humanoid organization, cultural homogeneity is an essential requirement. The humanoid organization excels in institutionalizing apparently paradoxical concepts as its harmonized core values. Creative compliance, robotic humanism, programmed perfection, responsible empowerment, integrated diversity, focused pluralism, standardized innovation, controlled aggression, and many such teaser phrases can be coined to describe the personality of a humanoid organization. At the core, however, is the ability of the firm as well as individuals to look beyond conventional structures and processes, and target cultural homogenization as the core competency of a humanoid organization.

The culture of a humanoid organization emphasizes core values that can take a society and nation forward. These are innovation, creativity, enterprise, discipline, responsibility, efficiency, quality, safety, humanism, and integrity, not necessarily in any order of importance. Each member of the organization needs to be homogenized in terms of these core cultural tenets, at the time of entry and on every relevant occasion thereafter. Cultural homogenization requires each individual member of the organization to follow a standardized code of conduct and method of working to address the several issues an organization faces in an efficient and effective manner.

Humanoid spectrum

If human variability or creativity and robotic standardization or efficiency were to be seen as the two ends of a spectrum in developing a humanoid organization, the relative share of the human and robotic factors could determine the nature of the humanoid organization. The typical Japanese organization emerges as the ideal humanoid organization with the human elements and robotic elements having a 50:50 mix. In certain cultures such as China and Korea the robotic emphasis could be heavier, at say 80 percent and 70 percent respectively. Western companies could range anywhere between 60 to 80 percent in terms of robotic emphasis. On the other hand, an Indian organization could display a higher share of human components at say 75 percent.

It would be incorrect to assume that a greater than 50 percent emphasis on any one aspect would provide a more enduring advantage on that factor. An organization which has an 80:20 mix of robotic and human factors need not necessarily be more efficient than an organization with 20:80 or 50:50 mix. On the other hand, the contrary could be true. The success of a humanoid organization lies in its equal and equitable dependence on the human and robotic factors. When vested in equal proportions, these factors are mutually reinforcing and synergistic. Organizations aspiring to achieving the unique humanoid capability of robotic efficiency with human empathy would do well to follow the Japanese organizational model of 50:50 mix of human competencies and robotic capabilities.

Posted by Dr CB Rao on April 3, 2011

1 comment:

Narayanan said...

A very interesting concept that combines left and the right brain competencies albeit in the organizational context. As highlighted in the blog, traditional models assume a deterministic phenomenon whereas in reality organizations tend to mirror stochastic processes; not surprising since this is largely a reflection of human behavior. While the humanoid organization is intuitively appealing, one wonders if the whole (organization) can be adequately represented as a sum of parts (mean/median behavior of all constituent individuals). Non-linearity and inherent uncertainties in human behavior would suggest a better representation is that of a 'fractal' in which each member of the organization is a 'self-similar' object of the whole organization. From this perspective, one can envision the collective consciousness of the organization to embody the ruthless logic of a robot with the adaptability of humans to both preserve unity of purpose and promote diversity of thought and action - all in a self-organized system capable of optimizing its form and function existing in a perpetual harmonious state.