Why We’re Witnessing the Death of the Department

In a guest post with B&T, Deepend’s Head of UX, Glen Jeffreys, says digital professionals are discarding ‘traditional’ roles and relationships in favour of more collaborative, team-based responses to problem solving. Meaning people are ‘in’ and departments are ‘out’…

The days of client briefs cascading down through the various departments of an organisation are gone, replaced by small teams of polymaths who can meet the rapidly evolving needs of each project. In the coming years, this will affect how businesses are structured and our place as digital professionals within them.

As a User Experience (UX) designer, it can often be tempting to place information, experiences and even people into categories. When trying to create a structured, intuitive experience this can seem like a logical place to start; creating neat little silos that can be grouped, related, expanded or discarded. At the start of my career, I used this process to create information architecture diagrams and user personas that would form the basis of my eventual design. I’d kick around ideas with clients and internal teams and then knock out some wireframes, write up a specification and slide the document over to the graphic designer for the next stage of production.

Of course, things have changed. Design thinking and agile development permeated mainstream digital culture. Collaboration, ideation and iterative development highlighted the importance of empathy, flexibility and testing. UX professionals quickly realised a fixed ‘waterfall’ approach to design and user feedback exposed the inherent bias and inaccuracies associated with our carefully scripted audience personas. Thankfully, we’ve responded with new techniques that help us to discard assumptions, recognising and designing for the people and behaviours that fall outside set processes, categories or personas. Our approach has become agile and collaborative and our work has become richer as a result.

This rapidly evolving digital landscape is producing a workforce that is naturally uneasy with categorisation and fixed processes. Job titles and organisational departments that once sought to define how, when and where people were included within a project’s lifespan are being discarded. Multi-disciplined teams are becoming the norm and the people that form these teams are demanding to be included from the very beginning of each project.

In this new reality, roles and responsibilities are overlapping; UX must understand and collaborate with strategy, design and engineering to make informed decisions, and vice versa. As design professionals, we are moving away from singular specialisations and towards a broader understanding and appreciation of multiple fields. Welcome to the age of the digital polymath.

Responding to this new reality is a key challenge for every organisation.

Historically, it has been the younger, smaller companies that have coped best with the agile requirements of modern digital production, particularly during their ‘start up’ phase. Yet when these companies begin to grow they typically find that scaling their fluid practices is challenging. Organisational structure quickly emerges in response to growing business complexity. Hierarchies are created, roles are defined and before they know it that young, agile start-up has a COO, CTO, CMO and separate departments for accounts, strategy, engineering and (my personal favourite) creative.

Why does this happen? Why do so many organisations default to structures and processes that ‘feel’ solid and secure yet fail to reflect the way their people work and the outputs they want to achieve?

Social psychologists may be able to help us out here – research has found that at a consumer level we tend to copy the choices of others when we lack information or are unsure of what to do next (Eun Huh, Vosgerau & Morewedge, 2014). This behaviour quickly leads to socially accepted ‘norms’ that can have significant knock-on effects. Perhaps at an organisational level the same behaviours are occurring? Small, agile companies are forced to scale rapidly, but are unsure of how to go about it. With no firm model and a general lack of information, what else can business leaders do but default to copying what others have done in the past?

Interestingly, the same research found that when consumers were more informed they could break free of these ‘default’ choices, and make decisions for themselves. I’d wager the same trend will be observed across the digital landscape as our industry matures and pioneering businesses discard their traditional structures in favour of flexible cultures rewarding creativity, freedom and individual responsibility.

The challenge will be to avoid the temptation of replacing one organisational structure with another. Moving from fixed departments to multi-disciplined project teams may not always be the answer for future projects and emerging media. We need to accept the fluid nature of our industry and create organisations that place people at their centre, rather than departments or roles. Above all, an understanding of design and a willingness to review, test, adopt and discard processes, tools and methodologies must exist across all levels of the business.

The digital organisations of tomorrow will be shape shifters, immersed in innovation and possessing a strong culture of design thinking. Departments will die and position descriptions will become increasingly meaningless.

But don’t worry – with a bit of luck and the right attitude you’ll be too busy collaborating to notice.

Exclusive extract originally published in the SoDA Report 2017. See the full report here

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