Amassed at the border

In Network- Theorizing Knowledge Work, Clay Spinuzzi recognized a pattern at his research site where everyone in the organization appeared to be amassed at the border. The organization appeared to have "no interior" with so many employees devoted to the interfaces with outsiders. This image resonated with me deeply. My careers have been immersed in similar experiences. As a project engineer, I was coordinating my work with customers while keeping the production plant fed with the resulting documents. As a management consultant working in the clients premises so my time was devoted exclusively to their conflicted agendas. As an adjunct instructor for a local college, my time was spent with the students or for the students. That image of "no interior" fits perfectly.

As I reflected on other situations where this "amassed at the border with no interior" pattern might apply, I came up with the following list:
  1. brokerage outfits interacting with both buyers and sellers of investments, real estate, consignment goods or used vehicles
  2. local retailers serving customers with goods that have been negotiated with distributors, wholesalers or manufacturers
  3. field sales representatives interfacing with business customers and the home office, factory or sales support functions
  4. restaurant wait staff caught between their patrons seated at tables and the kitchen staff who are "up in arms"
  5. first responders always on call, dealing with victims, the endangering facets of their situation and the overloaded support services for the victims
  6. contractors on film projects, convention staging or touring companies who are required to coordinate their work on the fly
  7. design professionals caught between their clientele and the contractors who are building, assembling or installing the designs

Anyone in these situations would experience being a hub in a network with many incoming and outgoing linkages. Interactions would be chronically intense, demanding and consuming. There would be no timeouts to collect one's thoughts, regroup or change strategies. The pressures would preclude much concurrent documentation for later use. When pushed to keep a better record, frustrated replies would include "do you want the work or the paperwork?" Turnover of the most talented staff would remain high. Those that stick around would have learned to minimize their own initiative, curiosity and responsiveness in order to control the frenetic network of interactivity.

This "no interior" pattern contrasts with it's opposite where employees have gone into a huddle and never come out of the all-consuming interior. These personnel appear to always be in meetings, unable to return phone calls, incapable of making decisions on their own and under constant scrutiny by internal watchdogs. Their internal politics seem so tense and distracting that those who are expected to serve outsiders cannot: focus on the troublesome issue, take the time to reconsider it or get enough cooperation internally to respond resourcefully. Meanwhile, every internal move would get documented. Paperwork gets prioritized over actual work. Abstractions like "mission", "policy" or "reorganization" would be under constant review by standing committees. Outcomes would ultimately be delayed by the insular dynamics that appear so indifferent to outsiders.

I suspect the "all consuming interior" occurs when an organization seems "here to stay". This may result from a huge investment in a physical plant, a distribution system or a network of affiliates. The organization would get regarded as irreversible and asymmetric. There's "no way to pull the plug on the thing". It has exceptional staying power, consensus among diverse constituencies and interwoven dependencies on it. The enduring stability comes from the network encompassing it.

Then it fits that the "amassed at the border with no interior" pattern occurs when an organization is agreed to be an interim arrangement. Its days are numbered by changing economy, technologies, market rivals, scarce resources or fashion conscious consumers. For cadres of employees in this pattern, the end is imminent because it a limited scope project, a temporary assignment or a high turnover position. There is no incentive to invest in "interior functionality" under these provisional arrangements. Its investment in networking, alliances and outreach does not parlay into longevity. It lacks the staying power produced by a robust interior.

Finally, I wondered how there could be a "best of both" combination that avoided the perils of these two extremes. What if employees amassed at the border could:
  • occasionally retreat into a war room in person or online?
  • discuss with colleagues a visualization of the changing terrain, imminent threats, movement among rivals, and forthcoming invasions on the horizon?
  • formulate projects to prevent chronic problems, alleviate rework and improve anticipation of consequences?
  • projects could be tracked on a wall in person or online so individuals could maintain a sense of where things stand, how they could help others out or make recommendations on particular projects?
  • communities of practice met regularly to learn from each other, think out-loud about concerns and share solutions to problems that others could utilize?

When an enterprise implemented these approaches to "providing an interior", I believe the responsiveness "at the border" would be enhanced. These additional "actors" would mediate the actions of those employees to become less stressful, more collegial and better for the constituencies in the long run. The impression on outsiders would change from "passing ships in the night" to "enduring organizations that offer exceptional service". In other words, the best from a balance of reaching across the border and coming inside for a change.

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