When the article “First fire all the managers” (Harvard Business Review, December 2011) appeared, it stirred a debate.

Why? It is a serious story about a company, with several hundred employees, a leader in its industry that has flourished for 20 years without managers.

I am not suggesting you “fire all your managers”, but I am suggesting you look at how your business is organised. Otherwise, you might miss significant advantages.

A moment’s reflection shows why this is so.

The traditional organisation is just over 100 years old. It was set up to recruit and train rural workers to become cogs in emerging factories. In the absence of any other, the military model was more or less adopted.

Our current business language is full of fossil words that prove this.

We still recruit, train, appoint, promote, retire or fire. These are all military words. And the person who runs it all is called the chief executive “officer”.

Rural workers are still being recruited to factories in some places, but not in Singapore.

It forces us to ask: Is the old model still the best for a world-class company in a world-class country?

Things are different now. We compete for well-educated talent who have choices, and who think work should offer more than money. Their shopping list includes words like “meaning” and “autonomy”.

I stumbled across this opportunity by accident.

I set up business in Singapore 20 years ago. I couldn’t afford employees — and certainly not in several countries.

So, I formed relationships with others we called “affiliates”. This happened in Singapore, then Malaysia, Japan, Thailand, China and so on.

My “substitute” employees loved their autonomy. This encouraged innovation. We were soon doing fine.

Then I discovered they liked being in a community. I had to learn the new role of hosting meetings.

We worked on product improvement and marketing together. Moreover, we built trust, which helped enormously when we sold regional deals.

Then the affiliates began to compete to host meetings in their country. This shared the leadership, and business prospered.

During Sars and other crises, it turned out our model was extremely resilient because we all shared in the ups and downs.

Not being able to employ people had forced me into a model (which we now called the networked organisation) that was collaborative, leader-full and resilient. Not bad for a default option. 

Then came a revolution that transformed our business.

For some time, we had collaborated informally with similar businesses in our industry. So we got serious about this and called it N2N, for network-to-network-networking.

What has this to do with Singapore and Singaporean organisations?

The networked organisation (NO) is only one of many variants that have emerged.

One spectacular example is The Morning Star Packing Company, featured in the Harvard Business Review article already mentioned. I call it an SMO, a self-managed organisation.

Then there are VOs (volunteer organisations like Linux, Apache and Wikipedia), COs (community organisations like The Hub), and ROs (results-only workplaces like Best Buy). Each is differentiated by the way it is organised.

All show that leaders can now be “architects of collaboration”.

There is a caveat, of course. To attract and engage today’s talent means that leaders need to be more like “hosts” than “commanders”.

Hosts of what? Conversations are a good start. Then “meaning” and “ambitions” follow naturally.

It is not enough to hide behind the podium showing PowerPoint slides to rows of “troops”. This uses the auditorium as an indoor parade ground. It sends a strong message about power, control and keeping quiet.

How comfortable will you be sitting in a circle saying, “I’m not sure I know the answer to this yet, so I’d love to hear your ideas”?

Singapore has unique advantages in Asia. These include the opportunity to embrace a daring new area of innovation: our organisations.

And it behooves our institutions to stimulate debate on how to reinvent them.

Article by Ken Everett, chairman of Ken Everett International and N2NHub. He is the author of Designing The Networked Organisation, and will be speaking on the Architectures of Collaboration organised by SIM Membership Services today at 7pm. All participants will receive a copy of his book. For details and registration, e-mail jacquelinelow@sim.edu.sg or call 6248-9448.