Management Speak: The customer service department is here to stay.
Translation: We’re gutting the customer service department. This is your two weeks notice.
– Anthony Baratta explains the future of customer service.

“Patriotism,” explained Samuel Johnson, “is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” In a less famous rebuttal Ambrose Bierce disagreed, insisting that it is, instead, the first.

CIOs aren’t, for the most part, scoundrels. Desperate, perhaps, but not scoundrels. It appears that reorganization, not patriotism, is what they resort to first.

We’re in the home stretch of the integrated IS plan, and the subject is how your department is organized. Here’s the first sentence of your plan for next year: “Since we’ve demonstrated repeatedly that reorganizations cause more problems than they solve, this year we will focus on making the organization we have work more effectively.”

There are situations that call for top-to-bottom reorganization. If the company strategy has changed dramatically, requiring radically different work efforts than before, major changes may be necessary. If so, they should be the result of a careful analysis of how you plan to get work done in the future. Reorganizations should, in other words, be your last resort.

Not your first.

We’ve covered the disadvantages of reorganizations in this space before. (See “How not to fix IS,” April 27, 1998). To recap, major reorganizations distract employees from real work, eliminate risk-taking, and metaphorically raise the walls between departments. Reorganizations are supposed to break down barriers to getting work done, but invariably they raise at least as many as they eliminate.

This year you aren’t going to do that. Instead, you’re going to look for all of the factors that keep the organization you have from working well. How? Just ask your employees. They know, and they’re probably dying to tell you, not necessarily in flattering language.

Then figure out what you’re going to do about these barriers to working well.

Some of the most common problems are leadership issues in disguise. We’ll address those in the section to be discussed next week. In the section on organization you’ll address mechanical problems, such as:

  • Overemphasis on organizational boundaries: Any emphasis is overemphasis, so this problem never goes away. You have to have an organizational chart. The moment it inhibits employees, it’s a problem. Encourage and reward an attitude of “never mind who owns it – we need to get this done.”
  • Competing financial goals: I know it’s hard to believe, but in some companies each manager has a budget and is rewarded by his or her performance against it. Yes, it’s true – some companies encourage managers to pad their budgets, which is always at the expense of other departments. The best budget-seller wins. If my bonus depends on my financial results, think I’m going to help you out?
  • The wrong groups: Over time, some groups outlive their usefulness. Over time, new requirements call for the creation of new groups. While massive reorganizations usually cause more problems than they solve, continual grooming of your organization makes all kinds of sense. The trick is to do this without creating organizational winners and losers, because employees who see organizational change as a risk focus on keeping their heads down and staying out of trouble, not on getting the job done.
  • Communication barriers: Among all the possible barriers to communication, three stand out. The first is physical: cubicle walls are too high, people who need to collaborate work on different floors or in different buildings, and so on. If possible, get people who work together a lot nearer each other.

The second barrier is psychological: Shyness is common among technical folk. Create lots of situations where people who wouldn’t normally work together have a chance to interact.

The third barrier, following the chain of command, is just stupid. The chain of command is for giving work direction. If the only way Fred Smith can talk to Irene Jones is for Fred to first talk to you so you can talk to Irene’s boss to set everything up … who’s going to bother?

No matter how you’re organized, your organization will facilitate some work and impede the rest. You’ll never fix it by reorganizing. Instead, plan to eliminate as many of the impediments to cooperation as you can.