Flat, Be Nimble

A recent article in Chief Learning Officer Magazine, “The Power of Sponsorship at Gore”, highlighted the unusual corporate structure of W. L. Gore & Associates (known for its signature fabric Gore-Tex as well as industrial and medical products). What’s unusual about it: it’s a flat organization.

There are no managers or executives, except for the CEO, who is elected democratically. Everyone’s title is “associate”. Leadership development is facilitated through a sponsor model: every employee, including the CEO, has a sponsor who serves as coach, mentor, and promoter. The model seems to be working: Gore has been listed every year in Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work For”, placing within the top 20 in 2015.

How does Gore sustain this unique structure among 10,000 employees, manufacturing facilities in the US, Germany, UK, Japan, and China, and sales offices around the world?

Social-Collaborative Learning: A Way to Stay Connected

Perhaps with a little help. According to the CLO Magazine article, Debra France, an associate in the leadership development and learning for innovation group, noted, “Once we passed 7,000 employees, we needed a little more structural support around our leadership development.”  One solution the company is exploring is the social-collaborative learning platform offered by CorpU, a technology firm focused on applying the science of learning in organizations.

Gore piloted the CorpU course Leading an Adaptive Organization and is now evaluating additional ways in which the CorpU platform can help it fulfill its goals. The virtual environment would allow associates to work with peers around the world to develop their relationship networks, and share learning with teams in other parts of the company.  One might imagine that at a place like Gore, with a unique corporate culture to preserve, and an environment in which employees have greater decision-making power, it would be especially critical for employees to stay connected.

Nimble and Agile is the New Normal…

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Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Tim Kastelle (who calls Gore “one of the most successful firms in the world”) asserts that a flat organizational structure such as Gore’s works best for companies built on innovation—and that in turn, the structure fuels even more innovation.  “Flat” also works well in a rapidly changing environment, he says, because companies made up of small teams can respond quickly and nimbly to change.

But being nimble and agile isn’t just for flat organizations, or even those that are innovation-focused, notes Stanton Wortham, PhD. Wortham is the associate dean for academic affairs at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, and serves as faculty for Leading an Adaptive Organization, the CorpU course that was piloted by Gore. Wortham believes that adaptability is essential for every firm in business today.

…And Learning Holds the Key

“Organizations can’t be sure what the markets are going to do next week; they can’t be sure how competition from other sides of the world is going to impact them nowadays,” says Wortham. As a result, today’s company is like a species in a rapidly changing environment: adapt or die. (Consider the dinosaurs.) The causes are many: new information technologies, global competition, flows of information, expanding regulations, and cultural differences. No firm is immune.

The key to successful adaptation, according to Wortham, is continuous learning, which he calls “the essential skill in the contemporary business environment.” “It enables both individuals and organizations to respond more quickly and nimbly… it must extend broadly and deeply throughout the enterprise.” And it’s a leader’s responsibility, says Wortham, to activate learning and knowledge creation as an organization-wide imperative.

Find out more about the CorpU course Leading an Adaptive Organization