Is the CEO obsolete? A look the emerging organization

April 29, 2018

Recently, the writer of a guest editorial in The Guardian Weekly proposed a solution to what ails the world’s business schools: Shut them down. The author, Martin Parker, claims there are 13,000 business schools on the planet and he says that’s 13,000 too many. He says the reason he knows a total shutdown is the only remedy that will actually work is that he’s taught in business schools for the last 20 years.

His detailed critique covers a lot of territory, but I found one part of it particularly interesting in light of what I’ve been reading lately. Parker wrote: “If we want those in power to become more responsible, then we must stop teaching students that heroic transformational leaders are the answer to every problem[.]”

At first blush it seems as if we need more such leaders. But I think the point here is the same point which management consultant and author John Hagel is making in his book, The Power of Pull: This kind of thinking leads to passivity rather than the creative engagement which our society so desperately needs.

Hagel explains that what he calls “scalable” collaboration and learning are now the essential ingredients to have broad impact on society.

Legacy organizations (which means nearly all of our organizations) have largely been organized around economies of scale. Organizations can become more efficient in the delivery of goods and services, whether a corporation, a nonprofit or a government, if they scale up their size, break down and routinize all the needed tasks, and ruthlessly drive toward increased efficiency in operations. But, that works only up to a point because each increment of efficiency becomes harder and harder to achieve.

The result is what we see today. Employees working longer hours with increasingly stressful performance targets and less help to achieve them. Their routines and targets come from on high with little or no creative input from the employees.

The emerging archetype of the successful organization, according to Hagel, is centered around a narrative that enlists the passions of those involved, gives them the tools for broad collaboration and allows for continuous learning. The old organizations believe that holding stocks of specialized knowledge (often called trade secrets) tightly within the company is necessary to maintain a competitive advantage.

In the new organization collaborators actually create new knowledge through their interactions, knowledge that is essential to understand the fast-changing world we now live in; and, they do this on a continuous basis. What’s more, these collaborators may lie outside the company and even beyond its contractors.

All of this just sounds like good up-to-date organizational management. But, the next ingredient, enlisting people’s passions, requires a complete rethink of the organization. Right now, narrow duties are assigned to employees in legacy organizations and their job is to become more and more proficient in those narrow sets of tasks, whether on the factory floor or in the office suite. There is typically not much room for creative thinking.

In the new organization, people are attracted by a compelling vision of how society will be changed by the organization’s efforts. People are enlisted into something resembling a cause or a movement. This vision attracts those ready to reach for their creative potential on behalf of a worthwhile goal that is not simply profitable for the company, but more importantly, useful to society.

Hagel contends that such organizations have the competitive advantage because their employees, contractors, partners and other collaborators are animated by a personal passion to drive toward a broader societal goal.

Certainly, new digital forms of worldwide communication are making it easier to construct organizations based on scalable collaboration and learning. But to take full advantage of those digital forms, one must establish goals differently.

Apple Inc. is one of Hagel’s examples. Apple’s “Think Different” slogan announced a much deeper narrative that involved Apple personal computers (and later the iPod and iPhone) as tools of liberation. Anyone who is friends with a longtime user of Apple products knows the almost cult-like following that Apple products inspire.

It should be no surprise then that Apple stores don’t look so much like stores as temples: high ceilings; spacious, uncrowded floor plans; and various places to commune with the latest transformative Apple devices. My conversations with employees indicated to me that they see their mission as much larger than simply selling devices and that their input and ideas are valued, at least more than at most large companies.

Hagel insists that all organizations and movements could benefit from recognizing the shifts in our society that favor scalable collaboration and learning. A mere two decades ago, the idea of collaborating with thousands of people on most projects seemed ludicrous. Now, even volunteer projects such as open source software can include tens and even hundreds of thousands of contributors—millions if you include communications with users suggesting changes and improvements.

The specifics of managing such large collaborations are more nuanced and subtle than I can get across in a short discussion here. But, you will note that the idea of the transformative CEO leader is largely absent. The leader becomes more of a facilitator helping to discover the vision that emerges out of the work of others and articulates and distributes it for yet more comment and refinement. This is the hive mind at work, and it is difficult to tell who is actually in charge and where the ideas are coming from.

The emerging organization is one in which everyone gets to participate as a hero in a heroic vision. The putative head of an organization no longer exclusively provides the vision and the marching orders. Those come from the regular iterations of the collaborative process. Such a process is surprisingly nimble because it is so sensitive to new information and has such a broad network for capturing it. As long as the network remains a respectful space that elicits passionate cooperation rather than competition, its output will almost certainly be vastly superior to that of the top-down “efficient” organization.

The transformation of society to meet our many challenges including climate change and myriad other environmental problems, Hagel suggests, will come from a transformative new type of organization that enlists the passion of its collaborators for an explicit goal that serves society. That’s true, he insists, for both corporate and noncorporate entities. If he’s right, we have a chance to alter dramatically the nature of work as we alter dramatically the path of society as a whole.

Photo: “A hive of Apis dorsata (giant honey bees) I photographed whilst in Mt Abu, India. This hive was situated right next to a glass window of a building enabling me to get close enough.”  (2007) . Uploaded by Bksimonb.  Via Wikimedia Commons.

Kurt Cobb

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique,, OilVoice, TalkMarkets,, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions.

Tags: collaboration, grassroots organising