The Importance of Organization Structure - ON THE MARK
3rd September 2019

The Importance of Organization Structure

“Any organization with more than two dozen people or so will need to begin to group people together in order to manage the work effectively.” – Jay Galbraith

The importance of organizational structure is that it orders your organization to deliver value to a market. Your organization’s value chain is the sequence of high-level operations that represents your core value-creating process. It is the translation of competitive strategy into activity. The value chain is thus the central organizing principle for decisions about structure. If structured according to a different central principle, the organization is then designed to do something different.

Create a tight connection between the ideas of competitive strategy, value chain, and structure. It is in this relationship that the importance of organizational structure is clearly recognizable. The benefit of this understanding is that the core work of your organization will always remain the foundation of observations, deliberations, and decisions associated with the way you organize and lead people.

Compete to be Different

A succinct definition of strategy is a plan to achieve superior economic performance. It is a set of choices that define what an organization will and will not do. The key to strategy is to define a path to create unique value for a target market. Strategy asks that you determine how you can be unique in ways that are valued by the market.

Strategy as a competitive position in a market identifies three generic strategies capable of producing favorable economic returns. Students of Michael Porter will find these positions familiar.

  • A low-cost strategy means that at any given price you will be able to lead the market in profitability and return on assets.
  • A differentiation strategy means that your product or service uniquely meets an identifiable set of needs in the broad market and can thus support higher prices.
  • A focus strategy means that you fully orient to a narrow market segment and meet its needs better than any other competitor. This is a variation of the differentiation strategy.

A distinctive value proposition must translate into a set of activities that is different than those of its competitors. The essential nature of strategy is the development of a tailored value chain—choosing different activities to perform compared to your market competition or performing the same activities differently. Otherwise, you are competing on the same basis as your competitors. You are then said to be competing to be the best and, by Porter’s definition of strategy, you have no strategy.

Structure Follows the Work

The importance of organizational structure is that it defines the formal way in which work and people are grouped into units. It follows the value chain. Structure helps shape benefits available through skill specialization, focused attention, control and coordination, cost reduction, and opportunity for leadership development. (Mahler, 1975)

The core ideas that form the basis of structural decisions are work and work in boundaries. We started the conversation of work when discussing the value stream as the core expression of competitive strategy. The value stream is the work. It might surprise you to learn that many organizations do not have a clear and explicit understanding of the end-to-end value-generation process. It is this level of work granularity that allows the notion of unit operations to become visible. Organizations are structured to deliver these unit operations. This is called work in boundaries.

A structural design is complete only after work in boundaries is re-integrated through integrating mechanisms, which we call glue. It is an unavoidable feature of departmentalization that some people are brought together while others are separated. Glue mechanisms are needed to allow work to flow through the white space created by structure itself. It is important to understand that any set of choices that separates work will naturally create gaps that must be addressed through integration.

Lateral Capability Augments Structure

Lateral capability further integrates an organization across the structure that develops from departmentalization that separates work into work in boundaries. It is through the deliberate development of lateral capability that an organization can respond effectively to challenges that are not neatly addressed through formal structure. This capability therefore allows an organization to make more decisions more often based on perspectives, capabilities, experiences, and knowledge drawn from across the vertical organization structure. For those who say structure limits flexibility, this is the answer.

There is a hierarchy of lateral integration mechanisms. The informal organization is at the bottom, or most basic level. This is the easiest and least costly integration mechanism to develop and manage. At the other end of the continuum is the matrix organization. The defining characteristics of the matrix are dual reporting relationships and a balance of power. It is a sophisticated and costly form of lateral capability that requires significant managerial and leadership maturity from members of the organization. It is good economic and managerial guidance to work as low on this continuum as possible.

By Design or Default, All Organizations Have Structure

The importance of organizational structure is found in its relationship to strategy and the value chain. Structure is an expression of work that is separated into work in boundaries to deliver the value chain. Because of this separation, it is also necessary to address the concept of glue needed to re-integrate unit operations into a single value chain. It is also necessary to understand that no structure can meet all your operational needs for flexibility and speed.

If you’re interested in the structure of your organization, a first step is to have a conversation with your leadership team about your strategy and your value stream. The benefit of this first step is that you are looking at the bedrock on which effective and rational organizational structure is built.

“What is the core work process that delivers value to the customer?” – Professor Chris Worley

Dan Schmitz is a Consultant at ON THE MARK. OTM’s experience and passion for collaborative business transformation that’s supported by pragmatism, systems thinking, and a belief in people is unparalleled. OTM has been in business for 29 years and is a leading organization design firm.

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Comments (1)

  1. Paul Wayne

    Dan – Many cry that the age of relevance of org design is past. I believe you have captured the key points about why organization design is still relevant. Good work.

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