The idea of a boundaryless organization was coined in 1990 by Jack Welch, the then chair of General Electric, who was determined to break down silos to promote knowledge sharing and thus innovation (Ashkenas, 2015). The concept may be even more relevant in the new reality of work. And why is that?
Jobseekers (including those who already have jobs, maybe even at your company) place a higher value on flexibility than ever. In a recent survey of both passive and active job seekers,
Success in today’s economy is a slippery fish and the more adaptable your company, the better.
Some traditions help create continuity, but others can limit— who hasn’t cringed when hearing an employee say, “But that’s the way we’ve always done it”?
Hierarchical structures, by definition, don’t empower employees; instead, power is limited to the topmost echelons.
So just what is a boundaryless organization? Let’s break it down below and learn how you can start dismantling your organization’s limited boundaries.
Breaking it Down To make your company boundaryless, you need to reject limiting ideas, such as the walls of the office and rigid organizational structures. Technology makes it possible to share knowledge and skills at all levels, regardless of geography. As HRZone puts it, a boundaryless organization enables the “free flow of information and ideas to drive innovation, efficiency, and growth in a world that’s constantly changing”. Think of it as free trade agreements, with ideas as the commodity being traded freely across borders that are very permeable, if not gone completely.
You may also hear the term “boundaryless career,” coined by Arthur and Rousseau in 1998. It’s similar to the boundaryless organization in that the authors advocate breaking with traditional career norms and taking a more entrepreneurial approach to managing a career. This includes remaining open not only to changing companies but also to changing professional fields to find career fulfillment.
Given the Great Resignation, it would appear that a large number of workers are breaking down boundaries in their careers. This kind of employee is likely to be most comfortable in a boundaryless organization. It may seem counterintuitive, but breaking down boundaries is one way to retain those pursuing boundaryless careers, which ultimately means retaining the best talent.
Different Flavors According to former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz (2022), there are four types of boundaryless organizations — but you might also just create a new type.
Virtual organizations certainly can be boundaryless, since the technology that enables boundaryless organizations also makes remote work possible. However, as my coauthor Kim Shepherd and I argue in Remote Work: Redesign Processes, Practices and Strategies to Engage a Remote Workforce (2021) , simply sending everyone home with a laptop doesn’t automatically create a great virtual organization. It takes a deliberate approach. The advantages, however, are numerous and include drawing from a global talent pool, giving staff a good deal of flexibility, saving on real estate and equipment costs, and more.
Learning organizations leverage information to grow and evolve. Employees pay attention to what works and what doesn’t, and they share that information across teams. That way, instead of waiting for management to implement new processes and approaches, teams can adjust their tactics in real-time based on the learnings. This allows the company to be agile—in fact, this is consistent with agile methodology.
Modular organizations involve outsourcing all but the core functions of a company. It’s a manifestation of “focus on your core competencies and outsource the rest.” This approach allows members of the organization to concentrate on what they do best and, presumably, love doing. Under these circumstances, most of us thrive, and a team of thrivers is likely to create significant success. Outsourcing can also help your company minimize costs. The key is to find outsourced partners that align well with your company’s vision.
Network organizations discard traditional hierarchies and give tasks and projects to the people who can do them most effectively and efficiently, regardless of their place on the org chart. Importantly, the network also includes the resources needed to accomplish any task. Like the modular version, network organizations may outsource many functions, helping ensure that the network resources are robust.
Keys to Success
If you set out to create a boundaryless organization, or transform an existing one, here are four things that will help you succeed:
Create and maintain a strong culture, including a clear vision that keeps everyone’s eyes on the prize. My book The Power of Company Culture: How Any Business Can Build a Culture that Improves Productivity, Performance and Profits (2018) provides detailed advice. Suggestions include emphasizing what makes your organization unique to create a feeling of belonging, sharing information transparently to demonstrate trust, celebrating mistakes as opportunities to learn, and more.
Make flexibility your mantra. Let people work where and how they want, measuring performance to goals— that is, if people achieve goals and help one another out, they are performing well. Remain open to doing things in new ways, exploring new ideas, and welcoming new points of view.
Take full advantage of technology to enable collaboration, project management, communication, social interactions, and other functions. Slack, Asana and Loom are just a few examples. Find the right one and make the most of it. You might identify a couple of super-users to explore the platform and help the organization make optimal use.
Elevate the employee experience, including empowering people and encouraging autonomy, setting realistic goals and ensuring people have the resources they need, investing in relevant professional development, and recognizing and rewarding success.
Of course, organizations need some structure to be successful and, ironically, “boundaryless” is a type of organizational structure. You can focus on any of the types above or mix and match aspects that make the most sense. Ultimately, a successful boundaryless organization is one that keeps structure minimal and flexible.
Chris Dyer is a company culture and leadership expert and CMO of PeopleG2, which has continuously been ranked as one of the best places to work. If you’re interested in learning about how Chris can help you leverage a boundaryless organization, reach out to get in contact today.
Chris Dyer is the founder of PeopleG2, where he managed 30 full-time remote employees and 3,000 independent contractors. PeopleG2 is routinely ranked as one of the best places to work and has been listed as one of Inc.’s 5000 Fastest-Growing Companies. Having made the transition to remote during the recession in 2009 with stunning success, Chris Dyer is now a world-renowned expert on remote leadership and productive company culture.