The origin of organisations

When wars were fought by small marauding bands, not much structure was needed.

It is relatively easy to arm a thousand or two men and charge across the open countryside into the enemy lines.

The problem though became serious with the huge armies of 50,000 or 100,000 soldiers which started becoming relatively common a couple of hundred years ago.

How on earth in the heat of battle could one maintain control of so many people with so many different types of weapons and react quickly to fastchanging circumstances?

Some soldiers were mounted on horses, some were not. Some were gunners, some had swords, others were on foot and had muskets. Each of the groups were specialists at performing a particular activity and it was vital that they be brought into the action at the right time and in the right place. Difficult to do if everyone moved at different speeds. They also had to be able to react to changed circumstances without endangering the rest of their army. What greater discipline and leadership is needed than to manage 50,000 people in the heat of a battle as for example happened at the Battle of Waterloo? Napoleon alone had 75,000 troops and 256 field guns.

The evolving solution was for the general or fieldmarshal in charge to layout his forces opposing the enemy and then retire to a hill overlooking the battlefield. He would gather round him his staff who were given orders as the battle progressed. The staff were mounted on fast horses and each would ride at a gallop to a part of the battleground with orders for that group/regiment/line to do what they specialised in doing and to do it at the right time. The orders were usually in writing so that there could be no misunderstanding.

Timings were communicated and coordinated through signal flags and trumpets or horns. Different officer classes were created to ensure that at the crucial time there were no discussions, only orders. Large armies thus had worked out how to be flexible and reactive in the chaos of the battlefield.

So when people started to look at how to manage and create the emerging large companies of the 19th century many turned to army structures for ideas. It was no accident therefore that some of the earliest writers on organisational theory were retired senior army officers.

It was no accident too that some of the terminology has carried over from the army. For example, we still use talk about “staff” and “line” to refer to advisory and implementational roles. The staff function supports the organisation with specialised advice and support (supporting the field marshal by circulating his orders), while the line function is one that directly advances an organisation in its core work (production or selling or fighting the enemy).

One can begin to see how closely army structures and company structures correlate. Both require a large element of topdown communication, with feedback moving in the opposite direction so that the results of actions may be judged. Both have enormous complexity which needs to be codified, simplified and then managed. Both are dynamic structures which have to maintain their integrity in difficult and “noisy” environments.

What the early organisational theory managers and writers were trying to do was extremely complex. They had to identify roles, the skills needed to perform those roles, what actions each person had to perform within their roles and how those actions could be coordinated to achieve a specific outturn. They developed the concept of “process”. Then they cemented the bureaucracy with a series of rules, some of which subsequently became enshrined in company law.

Organisations are extremely complex and you ignore this complexity at your peril. Too often companies go through reshuffles without understanding what they are trying to achieve.

Companies have to keep questioning whether their structures are relevant to the achievement of their objectives and whether they are properly adapted for the changing environment in which they operate. People by their nature are resistant to change. When they are footsoldiers or lower level employees, they can perhaps be replaced. But when resistance to change is endemic in the senior ranks of the company, then it becomes serious. Think Nokia.

SOURCE: Muscat Daily