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Author's profile photo Former Member

My organisation looks like?

a) the Eiffel Tower,

b) a bowl of spaghetti?

SuccessFactors Professional Edition – a thought provoking trial

I’ve been trying out the SuccessFactors Professional Edition (SMB market) software recently (and no, this is not a review of it, that’s coming later.) It gave me a moment’s pause to think. Does the organisational structure at my company actually resemble a tree (an upside down one I guess) at all? The SuccessFactors software has a great organisational structure visualisation tool (far nicer than the Nakisa one IMNSHO), but it’s all about visualising a traditional hierarchical organisational structure.

Different types of structures

At the same time I was thinking about this, I happened to read the supposed “Valve Handbook for New Employees“. On page 4 (I’ve included the link, if you haven’t read it, I can recommend it, fascinating stuff and far more than just the bit I’m talking about here) it describes the structure of the organisation.


It makes a point:

“Hierarchy is great for maintaining predictability and repeatability. It simplifies planning and makes it easier to control a large group of people from the top down, which is why military organizations rely on it so heavily.”

Like Valve, I don’t see the organisation that I work for being particularly militaristic. I grew up as an “army brat” and therefore have a very healthy (in my eyes) disregard for any kind of imposed authority. Someone telling me that I must do something in a certain way, is almost a guarantee that I’ll try to find a different way of doing it. I try to treat the people I work with like I would like to be treated. Telling someone to do something is pointless, explaining to them why they should do something – that’s more like it.

I’ll digress from my main point here for a little bit, because a random memory has just sparked, and it’s sort of relevant. When I was a new grad starting out in the big wide world of SAP HR consulting all those years ago, my boss at the time hauled me out of the clients where I was shadowing and learning, and into the office. For one week I helped the office admin team file expense reports, collate timesheets and put together invoices After that, although I may never have been the best at getting my expenses in on time, when they did get in, they were very clearly and neatly arranged. Why? because I had learnt that doing so was a simple task for me, but made the life of the admin person so much easier. Because someone had taken the time to show me why I should do something in a certain manner, I was very happy to do it.

Hierarchy and innovation, not great mates

In their employee handbook Valve go on to say:

“But when you’re an entertainment company that’s spent the last decade going out of its way to recruit the most intelligent, innovative, talented people on Earth, telling them to sit at a desk and do what they’re told obliterates 99 percent of their value. We want innovators, and that means maintaining an environment where they’ll flourish.”

I’ll put my hand up right now and admit that Discovery is not an entertainment company, despite it sometimes being very entertaining to work here, yet I’ll completely agree with the sentiment of it being an absolute innovation killer to tell people exactly what they must and must not do. To me to provide the sort of environment that people are going to thrive in means everyone having a say and everyone moving forward.

Such a dynamic (yes my description and substitute whatever smanky term you want to use instead) way of doing things cannot, I believe, have a non-dynamic organisational backbone.

So let me try to put that on paper for you

I tried to draw a simple map of the relationships between a few of the employees in our company (disclaimer, I didn’t stop to think too long about who is linked to who very hard here, so if you’re on this chart and I didn’t link you correctly, sorry, it isn’t a real org chart because there wasn’t a whiteboard involved.)

org structure.jpg

when I tried to add just one more employee (Karsten) it just got far too messy:

org structure2.png

My point is, that as a small company, we just don’t fit into the traditional hierarchical organisational structure. And to follow on from the point made by Valve, I don’t think it is in the best interests of our organisation or staff that we do.

Scientific interlude to counter excess HR fluffiness

Another digression (sorry) even evolution (Darwin’s tree of life) isn’t consider a tree these days, it has been recognised that due to the transfer of genetic information from and through viruses and bacteria there is an awful lot of our genome that doesn’t come from our direct ancestors, but from other species. It’s called horizontal gene transfer (HGT) and has been found to play a major role in forming species. To use this analogously, I should suggest that who you are working with, who influences you and who you influence are more important to who you are than the person that you supposedly report to.

Back to HR (or HCM, or whatever…)

Now I don’t think that either Discovery or Valve (or Dawin’s web(?) of life)  are unique in this. I think the days of the hierarchy are numbered, and what is more, we are inventing and deploying the tools right now that will be its undoing.

Tooling up for the revolution

Enterprise social networking, whether using tools like Jam, Streamwork, Yammer, Google+ (we use this a LOT internally, it’s free, simple and powerful!) or even going more external with tools like Twitter, LinkedIn, and, so help you, Facebook is clearly in vogue. It should be a simple matter to leverage these tools (along with email ) to find out who is talking to who. From this we would have a clearer picture of who is talking to who, how often and in what formats. We could use this data to help us consult the right people. We already do this in many ways, but imagine having a system that could help us. In the same sort of way that GMail prompts you to include certain people in an email based on your past emails but that would also check the content of your message (I know this sound horrendous to some of you, but I’m just imagining stuff here, not planning for an actual solution, bear with me). The possibilities of how we could capture and utilise the connections between our employees to add value to the business are only just starting to be explored.

I’d push the analogy that I’m trying to make so far as to say that communities of interest are the new org units of enterprise. Although you might not send a leave request to be approved by your local ketchup appreciation group (I used to read the USENET alt.ketchup group at uni for a laugh, how the world has changed! I can’t even find a link to it now.) You are more likely to check that your vacation isn’t going to leave the project teams you are working with in the lurch, rather than checking with the team with whom you are theoretically assigned but haven’t worked with for the last 6 months.

When it comes to handling career goal planning, I think that we need to be encouraging everyone to be part of the process.  (I happen to agree with Prof. Culbert about the usefulness of performance reviews, but strongly believe that goal setting is a great way to understand how to get to the next level, in a positive way.) 360 type reviews (where we reference and review with the people we are working with, rather than an arbitary “manager”) of the goals that we are setting allow ourselves allows us to help ourselves and our teams understand where are heading,  without the soul-sucking negativity associated with most performance reviews. For such a distributed process, there is no benefit to a rigid structure where person A conducts the review for person B, C and D. Again I see great potential in the use of social communication tools to share and organise and optimise these processes.

Full circle

So back to my original musing, what does my organisation look like? I don’t think I know yet, but I think it’s going to be fluid. If I want to be part of a successful innovative company (and who doesn’t) I think it need to be able to change shape depending on how and why I’m looking. And my view of the organisation should be able to change that shape without me needing spend days of constant restructuring.

And to finally relate that to something SAP

Returning to my thoughts about the SuccessFactors Professional Edition product and its use of strict hierarchical structures. I don’t think that these do fit with how many SMB companies are choosing to operate today. Yet, I can see how a SaaS solution that is planning to integrate “social” into everything they do (one of the strong messages from SuccessConnect) will possibly get me there a lot quicker than an onPremise solution will. I hope that by posting this up people will read this and start to think about how we can start to leverage the tooling that SAP is providing to be more creative, dynamic and successful. SuccessFactors people, you have a real opportunity to create something in this space, please let’s build something awesome.

As per always, these are my own personal views, and do not necessarily represent those of the company I work for. I purposely take a line which is at times controversial and contrary to many people’s beliefs. I don’t think I’m correct, it’s just that no-one has convinced me otherwise yet. Sorry for putting this into the SAP ERP HCM space, I wanted to put it into a SuccessFactors space, but that doesn’t exist yet and given SuccessFactors is going to take over anyway… (but that’s another blog) – . Thank you for taking the time to read, and please let me know what you think.

Valve Handbook for New Employees

References: in a list to make life easier for you (my own adaption),–we-just-love-talking-about-it–but-where

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      Author's profile photo Tom Van Doorslaer
      Tom Van Doorslaer

      Pure awesomeness Chris!

      To answer your initial question:

      Our hierarchy looks like an Eiffel tower on top of a bowl of spaghetti 😆

      Author's profile photo Chris Paine
      Chris Paine

      Nice one Tom! I've had a couple of feedbacks that spaghetti is much tastier than Eiffel tower too.

      In my opinion the ideal isn't a either but more like a dynamic view that changes depending on what demands you make of it.

      Thanks for the positive feedback, much appreciated. 😀

      Author's profile photo Luke Marson
      Luke Marson

      Hi Chris,

      A cracking blog, well written and full of some interesting information - especially for someone that has been working with orgchart visualization for some years.

      Now, I don't want to piss on your fire, but very few of the organizations I work with have anything near the innovative org structure ("org network" I think you quoted 🙂 ) that you talk about - but then I often work with companies who probably fall above the SMB market.

      However, I do want to fuel your fire and discuss organizations that I haven't worked much with - SMBs. As someone that works for a small arm (25 SAP HCM consultants) of a large company (nearly 200 SAP HCMs consultants in Europe), I can definitely relate to where you are coming from. I think the small dynamic companies that don't/can't use SAP HCM and Nakisa OrgChart would struggle with defining how their structure would be in the system. While every company needs some kind of order (to stop the ensuing anarchy, unless that works for you), this order becomes more jumbled lower down when you need people to "get things done".

      An interesting point that relates to what you talk about, but in a global/large org context, is Matrix org structures. These are much more akin to what you talk about, although they only segment across part of these organizations. You have people who sit in one place, but report to someone else - or multiple people. I'm interested in how SF handles this because many big orgs won't make the move if they can't get these people visualized.

      Anyway, just a couple of pennies worth for your troubles 🙂



      Author's profile photo Chris Paine
      Chris Paine

      Hi Luke,

      Thanks for the comment.

      Yes, I'm quite aware that most/all of the companies that I work with currently use a fairly rigid hierarchical org structure, I think at the moment it is because they just don't have a choice.

      SMB's have the luxury of being able to adopt to new ideas in a much faster way than is possible for larger organisations. Indeed, I think the adoption of organisational networks rather than structures will be something that SMBs will adopt to first and use as a competitive advantage over their larger counterparts.

      But it will involve quite a few re-thinks about how to do things. Who do you send a leave request to in a network organisation? I'd suggest that you send it to whoever you think best, and then the system verifies your choices and adds on some others depending on which groups you interact with most and the seniority of the people in those groups. perhaps if your leave is going to send you to a negative balance, someone from HR will need to be included in the group. All "approvers" will be able to see the others in the list and be able to see the approvals/rejection votes. Rules could be built to require a majority vote or perhaps a unanimous vote... Again this is just bluesky thinking - but what we are doing here is moving the "management" responsibilities of the traditional manager (which in my experience have usually been quite limited anyway) to all employees. Everyone is responsible for the team. Perhaps I should coin a phase - "social management".

      I think if the employees in the company are invested in making it work then there wouldn't be an "ensuing anarchy", but I don't see this working for organisations for which the military model works well. If employees would happily turn up to work, sit and drink tea all day every day as long as they got paid - having a sergeant-major scream at them could well be the most effective way of doing business. But for professional services business (or even sub-sections of businesses - imagine the IT department of your mega-corp being arranged in this manner) I think that it makes sense.

      To your other point of how can SuccessFactors allow for a more detailed visualisation of matrix style orgs, I really don't know. I have to say, I've rarely seen this done well anywhere. The problem isn't really the lack of visualisation tool, but there problem is that the underlying data used to produce the visualisation is not updated/is too much effort to maintain. This is where I see the automation of this maintenance through the querying of the social data that employees generate as being able to automatically build these networks.

      Like most innovative type solutions, I think we'll see most action in the small businesses before we (if ever) reach the large.

      Author's profile photo Luke Marson
      Luke Marson

      Hi Chris,

      I like your visionary thinking and I think there is a lot of potential to an idea such as this, especially with the use of the meta-data framework and social collaboration tools to "inform" the system of what is happening. However, as you say, it's going to be with the small organizations first and therefore I can't see a vendor like SAP (incl. SuccessFactors) investing in this kind of technology. I think a Workday are more likely to bring in this kind of thing, although in the future - once SuccessFactors have a solid core HR and Talent Management offering for enterprise customers - this might change.

      Keep up the great work!

      Best regards,


      Author's profile photo Chris Paine
      Chris Paine

      Seems like I'm not the only person who is thinking that heirarchies are old hat, found this article.

      If you're against strict hierarchies, you may be interested.

      Author's profile photo Tom Van Doorslaer
      Tom Van Doorslaer

      Hierarchies are old Hat, especially in technological/innovative area's. The only thing you need is a competent team with a common goal/vision/project.

      In other areas however....

      Author's profile photo Uday Kumar Kanike
      Uday Kumar Kanike

      Excellent blog Chris. I liked your phrases, especially this one "Telling someone to do something is pointless, explaining to them why they should do something - that's more like it".   It makes the blog more interesting for readers.

      Author's profile photo Former Member
      Former Member

      Very sorry, that your org chart fell over when you added me in. 😛

      I really like your thinking outside traditional hierarchies. I strongly believe that the enabling and support of company internal networks will drive innovation, ideas and pragmatic solutions.