The Boundaryless Organization: A book review by Bob Morris

The Boundaryless Organization: Breaking the Chains of Organization Structure, Revised and Updated
Ron Ashkenas, Dave Ulrich, Todd Jick, and Steve Kerr
Jossey-Bass/John Wiley & Sons (2002)

Yes and No

The title is a misnomer: Although the authors do indeed suggest how to “break through the chains of organizational structure”, they provide an enlightening explanation of four different types of boundaries (vertical, horizontal, external, and geographic) which give definition to any organization. They do not advocate the total elimination of these boundaries (which is impossible, anyway); rather, they suggest how to rearrange them so that an organization can thrive. For the authors, there is what they call “A New World Order”:

“In living organisms, membranes exist to give the organization shape and definition. They have sufficient structural strength to prevent the organism from dissolving into an amorphous mess….Like a living organism, the boundaryless organization also evolves and grows, and the placement of boundaries may shift….Because the boundaryless organization is a living continuum, not a fixed state, the ongoing management challenge is to find the right balance of boundaryless behavior, to determine how permeable to make boundaries, and where to place them.”

This brief excerpt from the first chapter correctly suggests the purpose of this remarkable book: To explain HOW to meet that challenge.

The material is presented within four parts plus a conclusion. The first explains how to achieve “free movement up and down” by crossing vertical boundaries; the second explains how to achieve “free movement side to side” by crossing horizontal boundaries; the third explains how to achieve “free movement along the value chain” by crossing external boundaries; and in the fourth part, they explain how to achieve “free global movement” by crossing geographic boundaries.” Then in the Conclusion, the authors discuss “Making It Happen: Leading Toward the Boundaryless Organization.”

The authors also include a series of six questionnaires. By completing each in sequence, the reader is able to determine (a) where her or his organization is now located relative to “the boundaryless paradigm”, and (b), what is needed to eliminate the “gap” between where it is now and where it should be. Those who share my high regard for this book are urged to read The Boundaryless Organization Field Guide. It contains a a hands-on set of diagnostic instruments as well as exercises and tools, and a disk with presentation slides in Powerpoint format.

I agree with the authors: The most restrictive organizational boundaries are in the minds of those within an organization. Organizational as well as personal wounds are usually self-inflicted.



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