When is an organisation ‘an organisation’?


Some further early thoughts on my proposed annual lecture 2011. To recap: the 2010 lecture suggested we need to think afresh about the core values of the Enlightenment – values which have not only shaped who we are in the West but which continue to frame public discourse. Following Todorov I focussed on the values of autonomy, universalism and humanism, which can roughly be expressed, respectively, as individual freedom, social justice and human progress.

The idea of the 2011 speech is explore these questions in the context of organisations. There are three reasons for this choice of focus:

  1. Organisations dominate our lives. We work in them, we consume what they produce and they shape almost every aspect of our lives. If values matter in society then will matter in organisations. Indeed it is in and through organisations that we learn and apply many of our values.
  2. The performance of organisations is crucial to our well-being. We need organisations to do good and to be good at what they do (although people may disagree about the balance between these two measures of success).
  3. My annual lecture as RSA CEO should reflect on key issues for the Society – as an organisation - and provide some pointers as to future direction and options.
  4. I wrote the day before yesterday that the first section of the speech would be about organisations, what are they, why do they matter how are they changing?  But on reflection these are big complex questions without precise (or non circular) answers.

    More realistic and useful may be simply to say why organisations matter (see above) and to define what I mean by the term. For the purposes of this speech I think I can adopt a fairly narrow definition.

    My focus is on formal organisations with reasonably clear boundaries marking off who is in them (as employees or members). Indeed one simple way of defining an organisation in this context is that it will publish its own accounts (or at least be a distinct unit within a larger organisation which does so). I may change my mind on this as a I go on, but I think my focus is also primarily on organisations beyond a certain size: how about – to pick a criterion from the air – an annual spend of over £1 million and a workforce of more than twenty? This is not to suggest the millions of organisations which don’t meet these criteria don’t matter but that smaller organisations may be less subject to some of the challenges I want to explore linked to hierarchy, bureaucracy and division of labour.

    My hypothesis is this: the way medium to large size organisations think about autonomy, fairness and mission is both important and often problematic. I want to explore whether thinking more openly and possibly differently about these ideas might make for better organisations (in both the senses referred to in (2) above).

    Before I get into exploring the values in turn I want to say something about the systematic challenges that all organisations (as I have defined them) face by dint of being organisations, and in particular to consider whether it may, for various reasons, be harder for organisations to deal with these challenges today than in the past.

    If you have read this far, thank you, I know it’s not exactly scintillating stuff. I got some really useful comments and tips yesterday. Further thoughts gratefully received.

    Be the first to write a comment


    Please login to post a comment or reply

    Don't have an account? Click here to register.

    Related articles