Working in FLAT Organizations: A Guide for Idiots
Flat Organizations have been in vogue in many new economy companies for more than a decade. Today, most “new economy” or “old economy” companies like to describe their organization as stagnating. Initially it started with many of the Silicon Valley companies, then the IT boom, then the internet bubble and the idea was well ingrained in the HR toolkits of most organizations around the world. Cross-pollination of ideas, which often occurs when HR managers change jobs, eventually ensures that “Flat” is the only way any organization is supposed to be structured. While this article is not helpful to anyone looking for information on “Flat” as an organization concept, it is a must-read for the millions of henchmen like me who make their living off “corporatedom.”
It’s unclear where and how this particular word originated, but it’s expected to be a very buzzword to use, especially if you’re the company’s HR person. I suppose “Flat” originated as a word that would imply the opposite of “pyramidal”, an organizational structure that most companies were accustomed to since the industrial revolution. “Flat” could also have originated a word that alluded to “Level”, since most organizations defined their positions and seniority scales as levels. Therefore, “Flat” was supposed to have the idea of leveling all the levels. “Flat” could also be a shorter version of “Flatter”, since this is a word that “flatters” the most humble henchmen of the company by thinking that they are equal to the bosses.
“Flat” could mean different things to different people in the organization, like everything else in the world, the meaning of flat depends on the individual’s perspective of life, such as
For an optimist, flat could mean that you are now closer to the top.
For a pessimist, flat could mean that there is not enough room for the elbows to climb.
For cynics, flat could mean there isn’t enough for everyone.
For utopians, Flat means that everyone in the company is the same.
For the ambitious: flat could mean no stairs to climb.
For the Lazy-Flat it could mean that there is no need to try to go anywhere, as there is nothing there.
For the authoritarians, Flat could mean “Apart from me”, everyone is on the same level.
For the team player: Flat could mean there are more options to pass the ball (or the -PC witness).
In addition to an individual perspective, the impact of “Flat” on your own career depends on what stage of the career you are in and what your position is in the organization, such as:
If you are an apprentice or junior employee, Flat means you must take on responsibilities that are directly disproportionate to your age and position, as we treat you as an equal!
If you are a mid-level manager, Flat means there is no more room for you to climb. They have replaced the corporate ladder you were climbing up with a stool and you are already on top of it. The people above you are actually above the ceiling.
If you’re a senior manager, Flat means your responsibilities will now be assigned to smarter and younger employees, probably even apprentices doing the same job for a much lower salary, so you’ll become redundant before you retire.
If you are the Top Boss – Flat means that, besides you, everything is Flat and all people are on the same level.
It is difficult to trace the exact reasons for the attack of the “Flat” revolution on “Corporatedom”. Although conceptually it has its political equivalent in the communist revolution, the essential difference to note is that the political revolution emphasized the change of ownership of political power from the tsars to the common people and was a revolution caused by the common people. The corporate revolution, on the other hand, is often driven from above or from the board. The “common man” in the corporate world: Employees and junior managers generally have no interest in the flat revolution. In corporatedom – “Flat” does not emphasize the change of ownership or even the distribution of ownership, it only emphasizes the distribution of work and responsibilities at the lower levels of the order.
Along with the distribution of work and responsibilities in the lower order, usually accompanied by technology-enabled management control systems, it also draws blood just like the other revolutions, by reducing the number of positions and ranks in the organization. So what happens to the people who are already filling those positions and ranks, depending on how luck smiles at them and how they have adapted to the culture of the organization that they might be?
Fired – This is often accompanied by a grueling and excruciating process of “adjustment” in which HR tries to gather enough documentation to ensure that you do not retaliate.
Downsizing – generally means your position and salary are no longer available, you could accept something less than you deserve.
Right Size – Usually accompanied by a discovery process where HR discovers they made critical mistakes sooner by offering you better pay and benefits and the time to correct that mistake.
Lateral movement: This is a humiliating process whereby the organization asks you to do a job that you cannot do and then points out to you how incapable you are of doing a job.
Kicked Up: This happens to the lucky few who have accumulated enough brownie points in the past or have some mission critical secrets that can be helpful or harmful depending on the nature of the person. It is also done if you are a good candidate for a competitive job. In this case, you are assigned a position higher than the current one with more advisory activities, few responsibilities, and no action.
What has been discussed above is relevant to people who are caught in the throes of the “Flat Revolution” in the corporate world. What if you’ve got a new job at Utopia Inc. where everything is flat? This can be particularly tricky with many of the goofy minions who actually carry thoughts to their heads and assume they are just as equal as the people above them. Organizing your daily life around a flat organization can be as complicated as playing Minesweeper on Windows – with one wrong click and all the points you have accumulated to date are zeroed, the game begins again.
I’ll close with some tips for people joining Utopia Inc., a flat organization that can help them survive until they find the next job.
Golden rules for working in flat organizations:
* Remember George Orwell: “All are equal, but some are more equal”
* Remember that it has been proven since the Renaissance era: that the world is round and not flat.
* Remember not to be “flattered” by Flat.
Typical symptoms of flat organizations:
* Common dining rooms and cafeterias for all staff, which means there is no place to gossip and complain about your boss.
* Open office spaces and no secretarial assistance for senior managers, which means you are constantly being watched by your boss and you may even have to do a job that your secretary is supposed to do.
* Misleading and confusing designations that are well designed by HR to flatter lower-level employees into thinking they have designations that sound similar to bosses and confuse higher-level employees into not realizing that his career is stagnant. Remember that a “Boss by whatever designation is still a boss”.
* Constant changing of roles and responsibilities, which again is a well-designed tactic to ensure that you never get good at what you do.
* The overwhelming use of technology and systems that ensures you have the computing power of chips increases, most of your knowledge is allocated to corporate databases, and organizations can be made much flatter.
* Fondness for labor outsourcing, which becomes essential since the more you outsource, the more you can continue to reduce levels in the organization to become even flatter.
So once you have understood the symptoms and use the golden rules as mantras, you need to make sure you follow a daily diet to ensure your fitness to live in a flat world. The essential ingredients of your daily diet should be:
Document Your Good Work – This will ensure that when there is an adjustment exercise, you can challenge HR.
Take credit immediately: modesty is not a virtue. Take credit for any success that was remotely associated with you.
Focus on self-development – Your goal should be to build your CV based on market needs and the job is a means to build the CV.
Be multidisciplinary – you never know which one will be useful on a particular day. It would be a good idea if you have some lateral skills like being able to organize parties, bartending, dancing, putting on shows, etc. In case nothing else works, they will help you. I know people who have built a decent business career with just these skills.
Focus on the paycheck – At the end of the day, it’s only as good as the paycheck in your hand.
Measure your value: through the seriousness of the deliverables that are requested, the amount of warranty rights, the approval authority and the number of people who inform you and not by your designation or what is communicated to you by RR.
While the tone of this article may seem bleak, methodical research, organization observation, and serious contemplation have been written. The intention is not to discuss a theory of human resources, but to provide the common person with a self-help guide.
May his rise to rule “Corporatedom”!