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Boundaryless Organization

NOTE: In order to truly understand the context of boundaryless organizations, one must be familiar with Jack Welch and his actions in regard to GE. Some additional research may be required.


A “boundaryless organization” is an interesting concept which simultaneously presents itself as extremely basic and yet highly complex; simple because it is so easy to understand, and complex because it would be very difficult to implement this concept in an already established, highly bureaucratic organization. Jack Welch appears to have been able to introduce this idea into an established company with style.

Jack Welch's concept of "Boundaryless Organization" is the multilateral input into processes and products between all stakeholders surrounding the given organization; primarily the workers within that organization. The idea is to remove barriers among traditional functions, “recognize no distinctions” between domestic and foreign operations, and “ignore or erase group labels such as ‘management,’ ‘salaried,’ or ‘hourly,’ which get in the way of people working together (Gilmore & Hirschhorn, 1992)". Welch said he called this the “one-coffeepot solution”, which points to the idea that everyone has a place at the table when it comes to ideas (McCarthy & DeAngelis, 1995).

This is not to say that management positions no longer exist. In fact, perhaps it’s best to say that under this concept, the management role has a kind of metamorphosis into a true leader type function. That is to say that a manager inspires, motivates, mentors, guides, etc. No longer is the manager forced to simply “manage”. James Taggart references Warren Bennis when he suggests that in a “Boundaryless Organization”, the manager serves as a catalyst to his or her people. Less reliance is placed on managing things (i.e., doing things right) and more is placed on leading people (i.e., doing the right thing) (Taggart, 2012).

That being said, I think it’s important to implement a reality check into the conversation as well. In the boundaryless organization, management, executives, and workers are free to share ideas and it is true that workers work in teams instead of by themselves. However, the fact that title still exists lends to the idea that some boundaries still exist as well. In fact, “sometimes boundaryless organizations still require boundary-spanning activities. These help to focus groups and keep everyone on task. These boundary-spanning activities need to be as flexible as the groups they support because they restructure as often as the company does (Griffin, 2013)". This is crucial to understand because “boundaries keep things focused and distinct…without organization, there would be no differentiation of tasks, no coordination of resources and skills, no sense of direction. In essence, the organization would cease to exist (Leadership Development, 2011)".

Based on my research, Welch was able to implement this idea into the GE by doing the one thing that most people would normally frown upon, that of course being, “getting rid of anything that was getting in the way of being informal” (McCarthy & DeAngelis, 1995). This undoubtedly had an unbelievable effect on the workers as far as their attitudes and perceptions. Those who would have normally been stuck in the old ways of doing business probably had a choice to make; some obviously chose wrong. Those who remained probably felt a sense of loyalty when the smoke cleared, especially if the reasons were made clear as to why they were not dismissed.

However, I can only imagine that the approach of firing 10,000 people today might fall under immense scrutiny. I can see this method being resisted in great part when we consider the idea of Labor Unions in regard to already established businesses. That being said, my research has come up with very little when it comes to boundaryless organizations and how they pit themselves against labor unions. I can only imagine this has something to do with the idea that unions are losing their appeal in many ways these days. Perhaps unions may not be an issue for the boundaryless organizations because more and more, employees know that union-negotiated benefits will be lost each time they change jobs. In a boundaryless organization, I can imagine a job or position change occurring quite often. Perhaps it is due to the boundaryless organization that the labor unions are losing their foothold. It's hard to say.

Still, I believe that many different organizations can learn from this concept. It begins with understanding that everyone in the organization is a part of a team. Of course the goals will vary depending on the organization but everyone in that specific organization ultimately has the same goal. Being the case, it would be wise to hear ideas from every level; especially when it comes to processes or product creation. Usually the workers (who have their hands in it), are the ones with the working perspective. I can imagine that the hardest part would be committing to the model, as many people are driven by stature or title. Furthermore, when considering management or executive level, many of these people put in quite a bit of time and sweat getting to their position. So I can also imagine that these people would resist the “level playing field” approach as it would more than likely be perceived as kicking the legs out from under their position.

I believe aspects of this model are already used in many modern places of business and organization. There are policies where workers or participants can present an idea or concern to management. Management of course has the same privilege with their supervisors and so on, all the way to the top. Pretending for a second that a worker feels as though their ideas or concerns are not being addressed by their direct supervisor, they can often bypass their chain of command in a sort of appeal process to get the ear of someone higher. When ideas are being formulated, it is encouraged (not required) that a team which includes management be involved. Finally, if an idea is used, that worker or team is usually recognized and rewarded for their contributions. For the most part, I believe this to be a successful practice. The loyalty aspect of the organization is considerably higher than others that I have seen or researched.

In the end, I believe the concept to be a unique one but also one that appears to be flexible to a certain extent. However, it also appears to be primarily academic in nature. For organizations thinking about transforming their organization, I would urge caution and perhaps take baby steps. One does not necessarily have to “go all in” with this concept in order to make it work. Welch appears to have rolled the dice and won big by doing so. However, there are only a few blaring examples of victories using the exact model Welch presents. It does not appear as though there have been many studies on the failures of such a move. Without such studies, who is to say that Welch didn’t simply create the best way to sell mass layoffs?


Resources

McCarthy, G., & DeAngelis, G. (1995). The book of five rings. Hartwick classic leadership cases, -
Gilmore, T. & Hirschhorn, L. (1992, May ). The new boundaries of the “boundaryless” company. Harvard Business Review,
Taggart, J. (2012, March 25). [Web log message]. Retrieved from http://changingwinds.wordpress.com/2012/03/25/thriving-in-a-boundaryless-organization-how-people-can-make-a-difference/
Griffin, D. (2013). The structure of a boundaryless organization. Retrieved from http://smallbusiness.chron.com/structure-boundaryless-organization-2764.html
Ashkenas, Ron; Ulrich, Dan; Jick Todd; and Kerr, Steve, A New World Order: Rising to the Challenges of New Success Factors. – Via Leadership Development. (2011). Emerging management issues of the "boundaryless" organization.

David Robertson

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