The merits and drawbacks of working in a networked organisation

16 September 2021
SERIES Rethinking organisational development 20 items

Until recently, I was an associate with On Think Tanks (OTT); like many other associates, I was neither a sole trader operating in a free market, nor a salaried employee working in a conventional hierarchical organisation, but somewhere in the middle. Moreover, OTT, whose founder and director is based in Lima, Peru, with associates primarily dotted across the Americas, Europe and Africa, has no physical premises. Before the pandemic, associates interacted with one another through email, Slack and video meetings, supplemented by one or two in-person events a year (including the annual OTT conference). But since the pandemic, we have been meeting entirely virtually.

OTT is perhaps a manifestation of Manuel Castell’s networked society. But what do I think were the merits and drawbacks of working for what I call a ‘networked organisation’ – for me and for the organisation?

More space to create, perform and connect

As I said in an earlier article, organisations can be traumatic places to work, where certain difficult dynamics might be projected onto staff, especially those seen as vulnerable. Being freed from having to work in such an environment was a liberating experience and good for my emotional health. I also enjoyed being able to ply my trade in a setting that was not imposed on me ‘from above’ or dictated to me by an outside authority. And with no senior managers to formally report to, I wasn’t required to undertake annual performance reviews, which in the past created anxiety, especially when they were linked to salary increments. Interestingly, there’s an increasing amount of commentary, such as this on the BBC, suggesting that such reviews are in any case pointless.

OTT charged associates an overhead on top of associates’ fees to pay for core services such as business development, project coordination and communication (as well as a profit). These services were delivered by others on a contract basis. This freed up my time to do what I was most interested in: provide research and advisory services for clients and write articles like this. This arrangement also helped me to raise the profile of my work among various audiences.

With no procedures, tasks and roles defined by high-level supervisors that would be managed within an authoritative system to operate under, I and other associates were ‘lighter on our feet’: we were able to give shape to new ideas, to write for external audiences, to hold events, to set up communities of practice with speed without needing, for instance, multiple approvals. Moreover, project leads were free to manage tasks in a largely unique way, using their discretion, experience and intuition.

Being part of the OTT network provided me a community to connect with, with the potential to recognise others and be recognised and to foster that sense of belonging that we often need as humans. It emphasised lateral rather than vertical forms of communication. It also provided me with a more visible brand and identity through which to sell my consultancy services, as compared to my own personal one. However, there were some associates whose own personal brand was strong enough to win them a steady stream of work who thus did not need to interact as intensely with the OTT network.

However, all this came at somewhat of a cost. As people we need a ‘good enough’ degree of security and predictability in terms of remuneration and workload. As an associate I personally found this tricky, as one either experienced a feast or a famine in terms of work and pay. Channelling all my contract work through one organisation also risked breaking UK employment regulations that aim to prevent firms from casualising labour.

Unclear and porous boundaries – at an organisational and individual level

Like other networks, the OTT network of associates provided a vital knowledge management function, providing me and others with information on issues I was interested in as well as business development opportunities. For the knowledge management function to work well, associates need to meet and talk periodically.  However, the challenge has been to know who to invite and then securing their attendance on a regular basis. Too small a group and you miss out on vital information. And too large a group and the conversation becomes unmanageable and meandering. But even if associates were invited to attend they were not compelled to join given the lack of hierarchical relationships. And sometimes they didn’t attend due to competing priorities and ties they had to other networks, organisations and clients. Unclear and porous boundaries around the organisation made working collectively quite challenging.

On several occasions, I found myself working with people (not always labelled as OTT associates), who I had never previously worked with. As I mentioned here, team work involves in large part contesting differences. This is hard when team members don’t know each other, as trust levels will be low and there will be little psychological safety for having difficult conversations. This is exacerbated by the lack of in-person communication, a reliance on video meetings during which people are often multi-tasking, and communication platforms such as Slack, where messaging tends to be asynchronous, with plenty of room for misunderstandings and where difficult dynamics can be reinforced.

Reciprocity and exchange is a key characteristic of OTT and other networks: ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’ as the saying goes. This could provide mutual benefits in terms of learning and funding opportunities but works against regulating one’s boundaries and having difficult conversations. Delivering on complex assignments with multiple team members meant sometimes being frank, offering one’s thoughts and feelings to team members and saying things that might psychologically injure others. However, doing this risked being cut off in terms of funding opportunities and information from other associates further down the line. It also meant that if the founder/director felt strongly about, for example, the way a project should be managed, he could only influence associates in an unobtrusive manner.

I also found myself competing and jostling with other associates for a role in new projects, in part driven by a need for income but also feeling I would be a good fit for the work. In one case, I pitched to lead a business development opportunity with a major funder. Although I felt I would do a good job, I ended up partly ‘trashing’ myself in a bid to avoid a difficult situation. With no formal authority over us, the founder found it challenging to navigate this. In a networked organisation, competition was harder to regulate given the absence of formal lines of authority between people.

Stifled leadership and diversity

With most associates contracted to work on specific projects or tasks, they found little or no time (or incentive) to reflect collectively and take actions related to more ‘strategic’ questions – unless these were directly funded or were done voluntarily. These questions included: which funders to pitch to? What skill gaps were there among associates? How to allocate and account for resources across projects more systematically? What overhead to charge? What communications products to create and who to target? For a while, these strategic issues were subsequently left almost entirely to the founder/director to think/worry about, or left unaddressed.

Associates were invited to the OTT network by the founder sometimes through previous work together, through friendship, loyalty and/or through a desire to work together on a topic of shared interest. Networks that form around an individual tend to comprise individuals with a common background, be it from a geographic, ideological, professional and/or racial/ethnic perspective. The search for new consultants during business development processes often took place through the network, which resulted in finding people with similar backgrounds. The more homogenous the group, the greater the trust and easier it is to sustain network like arrangements. When the diversity of participants increases, the opportunity for novelty and innovation increases, but maintaining high levels of trust can be difficult. Diversifying the network of associates subsequently remains a challenge.

Uncontained anxiety

Innovating and inventing as a member of a network can promote purpose, creativity and solidarity. But without appropriate mechanisms to contain people’s anxieties, doing so can also be highly risky, unpredictable and even destructive. Conventional organisations, especially those with physical premises, offer formal and informal ways to cope with anxiety generated by work: 1-2-1 conversations with colleagues, team meetings, socialising with colleagues after work where difficult feelings can be discharged, fun away days to forget about the difficulties of the day-to-day work and senior managers who we can blame (rightly or wrongly) for the difficulties we are facing. A hierarchy can help contain our anxieties and provide some security. In working for a virtual networked organisation, one is more likely to experience ‘desk rage’, as difficult conversations happen remotely using email and messaging tools. We get caught up with emotions, but when we finally pull back from the keyboard, we find ourselves alone without anyone to help contain our feelings.

The physical space many organisations offer can help create a clearer emotional boundary behind which work can be left behind after a day’s work. With home working the norm for associates, the boundary between one’s work and family/personal life is more porous (although pre-Covid-19, this was probably the case for those working in offices too). Physical spaces also double up as social spaces. But in a virtual organisation, there are no moments in the corridor, at the water cooler, while making coffee, or in other liminal spaces to foster chance encounters with old and new colleagues, acquire new information and/or vent frustrations. The merits of working in a networked organisation can at the same time be a drawback…

Do you work for a ‘networked organisation’? How have you found it?