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Unorganisation is an approach to organisational structure and design that consciously removes or avoids layers of management and bureaucracy, eschews job titles, and instead attempts to operate with the minimum of formal structure so as to become as flexible and effective as possible.
Unorganisation is not the same as disorganisation (a chaotic environment in which little can be easily or quickly achieved); neither is it the same as being disorganised, a term usually applied to industries with non-unionised labour (or just being personally untogether).
Whilst the idea of unorganisation has been a common theme among management theorists (see Tom Peters, for example), the term itself was apparently coined by Simon Buckingham, who wrote extensively about unorganisation on his web site www.unorg.com (now defunct) from 1996 through to 2004. The ubiquity of distributed computer networks, mobile communications technologies and team based project approaches to work have brought many of the ideas that he wrote about to fruition, to the extent that they now seem passé and dated. His term for what has now become common never really caught on, yet it remains an excellent catch-all for those who reject large corporate bureaucracy as a necessity (evil or not), and instead see a future of autonomous individuals contributing their skills and effort to a shifting set of projects according to their interests and/or current requirement for remuneration.
Buckingham’s writing had a particularly revolutionary flavour, looking forward to a ‘globally unorganised world of freedom, diversity and instability’, in contrast to the certainty and convention that he saw as characterising the orderly organised world. He looked forward to the rise of ‘technological capitalism’, as the next step away from communism, socialism and capitalism.
At the company level, unorganisation requires ‘downstructuring’ (removing structure), as distinct from restructuring (changing structure) or downsizing (removing people). Downstructuring is the practice of eliminating systems and procedures, such as job titles and paper-based administrative processes, so as to make what remains flexible and dynamic.
At the individual level, Buckingham suggested that people should stop seeing themselves as ‘interchangeable units of economic production’, and instead seek to realise their own growth potential by developing multiple ‘lifestreams’ – alternative areas of expertise that develop from interests and hobbies into a diverse set of skills and experiences that can be contributed to projects and teams as an alternative means of earning a living.
Buckingham reckoned that three things drive intentional unorganisation:
- Individual dissatisfaction with impersonal corporate hierarchies, which should be replaced by ‘voluntary and impermanent collaborations between independent individuals’. This is associated with the idea that talent should determine future wealth, not current wealth and access to economic opportunities limited just to those who have already benefited from other opportunities
- Increasing ability of individuals to act independently using telecommunications technologies to work, collaborate and access both opportunities and information. This trend has accelerated as technology costs have fallen whilst their power has increased
- Outsourcing of many parts of the value chain associated with the production and distribution of a product or service, as a means of cutting costs, building flexibility, and ensuring competitiveness
Buckingham anticipated that these trends would lead to “technological capitalism realising in practice the equality of opportunity amongst individuals that was always the theoretical goal of communism whilst anchoring the achievement of such equality firmly within an economic system of very free markets”. This has clearly yet (as of 2006) to be achieved for the majority of the world’s people.
Unorganisation has become mainstream in the early 21st century as a consequence of globalisation, which has been both a driver and a result of the use of the internet and associated technologies to distribute related business activities around the planet to their lowest cost / highest value locations. Related developments include the efforts to liberalise trade and reduce barriers to the flow of goods, people and information. The rise of the knowledge economy and information society are also manifestations of unorganisation.
Similarly, unorganisation can be observed as an obvious feature of the open source approach to software development and other kinds of collaborative development. Wikipedia itself could be seen as a deliberately unorganised entity.