Leadership In A Flat Organization

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Interview with J.P. Rangaswami


Ever since discovering information technology in the late seventies J.P. Rangaswami has felt that there is a disconnect between its potential and the actual value created in the hands of the end user – one of those strange cases of high investment in research only producing high dissatisfaction with the results.
But change is insight and we are now in a new world – he says – where we really are able to get the services we want – scalable and elastic, just when we want them, truly on demand. Now it is indeed possible to realize and build the things that we have long been talking about.


J.P. Rangaswami
J.P. is salesforce.com’s first chief scientist, and a multi-award winning and highly esteemed pioneer in the field of cloud computing. He believes it is only a matter of time before enterprise software consists of only four types of application: publishing, search, fulfilment and conversation.
Rangaswami has a wealth of experience down in the arena. Before joining salesforce.com he spent four years at BT in London, most recently as chief  scientist of the BT Group. He firmly believes that now is the time to demonstrate the value of information technology in simple terms rather than by complex inferences and abstract arguments.


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we_magazine:
What kind of impact does enterprise 2.0 have on leadership?

J.P.: The first impact is that we used to organise in hierarchies because it was very expensive to sit and communicate with everybody. The costs of collaboration were exceedingly high. But with the Web they came down to almost zero! And with today’s tools it is possible to flatten the organisation and to have feedback loops for a large number of people without aggregating them. Because whenever you aggregate you start summarising data and that weakens the communications process.
The second thing these tools do is they accentuate and enhance lateral communication. So now you can find out what the information flows in the organisation actually are. Because our departments, functions and structures aren’t the actual organisation itself, they are just a way of trying to manage it. And this was needed at a time when we didn’t scale well, when we only had analogue ways of dealing with the data stream. So I think the big change for organisational leadership is that with these tools and structures flattening a hierarchy becomes affordable.

we_magazine:
Are you saying we don’t need any hierarchies at all?

J.P.: No, no, no. There will always be hierarchies. There has been a considerable amount of research about emergent behaviours and swarming phenomena. When you see birds in flight, you can question whether these sorts of behaviour actually need leadership. But in the corporate world we still have requirements to deal with – such as reporting cycles and planning horizons either of the owners or the shareholders. So while we may see a willingness to take on emergent behaviours, the company still has to be rooted in the financial construct of quarterly reporting and annual reports of figures, accounting charts etc. This means you need to have at least enough hierarchy to fullfil these requirements.

we_magazine:
So you would NOT say that leadership belongs to the network?

J.P.: Leadership absolutely belongs to the network but the financial aspects of leadership are not easy to model. So while hierarchy is necessary for these financial aspects, actual leadership doesn’t need the hierarchy at all.

we_magazine:
What kind of skills do leaders in the future need to have?

J.P.: Well, we actually have been dealing with this question for the last twenty years. Initially we used terms like soft-hands leadership, then we saw servant-leadership types of teams. I myself have been speaking for some time now about leadership having to back down. It’s a hard question in various ways.

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Why would you want to hire a really smart person and then tell them what to do?

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we_magazine:
That’s kind of stupid.

J.P.: Yeah, it is stupid! You might as well have gotten a dumb person if what you want to do all the time is tell them what to do!

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We are living in a world where the most valuable asset to any organisation is the common knowledge of its employees.

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So how are you going to leverage this? You start to learn from things like open source communities or – one of the things I have now been following over the last six months – designing for loss of control.

we_magazine:
Designing for loss of control?

J.P.: Yes. You actually make it a design objective that you do not have control of the edge. Now what does this look like? Today Telcos have to deliver services and phones without knowing what device is on the other end. Previously, most of the time they knew the device on the other end, the device belonged to them, they knew its colour; everything was controlled end-to-end. Today we are in a different world where you can buy your phone from anybody and the Telco still has to provide the services. IT is now facing a similar problem. It used to be lock-down desktops, now more and more people are asking to bring their own (open) laptops to work. This means a loss of control for IT departments!

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