The Matrix Reloaded

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September 26th, 2014

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The unpredictable ‘VUCA’ environment has the potential to catch out many established brands. Companies that have been at the forefront of their industries and with a reputation for innovation can easily take their eye off the ball and be knocked off their reputational pedestals – take Kodak and Nokia, for example. And companies too focused on their familiar and ‘close-by’ competitors can find start-up companies come out of left field and, seemingly overnight, take a substantial chunk of market share. Snapchat – launched three years ago – now boasts 350 million photo uploads daily – the same as Facebook, launched seven years earlier (source: www.globaltrends.com).

The Matrix

matrix quoteEnter the Matrix organisation. Those that have been around a few years can be heard stifling a yawn and declaring that Matrix Organisations are “so 1970’s”. And it’s true – matrix structures are not new. Fred Taylor (of Scientific Management fame) had initially suggested in the early 1900’s that having more than one boss might sometimes be a good idea. Later, in the 1970’s, it came to light that an important factor in NASA achieving Kennedy’s ambitious goal of ‘a man on the moon by 1970’ was organizing themselves into a matrix structure. The idea hit the press and was rapidly adopted by others as the latest management idea.

The Matrix Undone

However, by the late 1970’s the word was beginning to spread that ‘Matrix structures don’t work’. It was not until the 1990’s that people began to revisit what was seen as a failed management fad of yesteryear. So why the bad press? Galbraith (2009) claims that, along with many ideas that became over-popularised into management fads, it was badly implemented and expected to return unrealistically instant benefits. It was also viewed too simply as a mere change in structure without realising the distinct shift in culture needed to make the matrix work. If the organisational culture rewards silo-based working while espousing matrix-style working, it is shooting itself in the foot.

The Matrix Reloaded?

There is something about our increasingly global and increasingly unpredictable operating environment that makes me think that the Matrix is “an idea whose time has (well and truly) come”. Rather than focusing on the most convenient social structure for us (functional silos), the matrix can help us orient more around the customer and the market. The matrix gives us the potential to draw on expertise from very different specialisms to make the response to the customer, the response to changing market conditions and the development of innovative new products the best they can be. In our global marketplace and operating environment, no one person has all the answers. No one function, no one country’s operation has the complete picture. Collaboration is the name of the game.

If you haven’t considered it recently, the Matrix may well be worth revisiting.

Photo of Adrian Lock, Senior ConsultantAdrian Lock is a Senior Consultant at Roffey Park.

We will be publishing a new research paper called “Living with a Matrix” which explores the skills that managers need to operate effectively within this structure.  For more information please contact us.

 

References

Galbraith, JR (2009) Designing Matrix Organisations that actually work. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco.