I am indebted to Chris Tubb for a tweet about a visualization created by Autodesk of how its organizational structure changed between May 2007 and June 2011. For each of 1498 days the entire hierarchy of the company is constructed as a tree with each employee represented by a circle, and a line connecting each employee with his or her manager. Larger circles represent managers with more employees working under them. The tree is then laid out using a force-directed layout algorithm.

From day to day, there are three types of changes that are possible:

  • Employees join the company
  • Employees leave the company
  • Employees change managers

Instead of recomputing the full layout each day the Autodesk team animated the transitions from one day to the next. In the video each second corresponds to approximately one week of activity. Watching it full screen reminded me of the final section of the film 2001, only instead of it being full of stars it is full of people, who may of course be stars!

There are some lessons to be learned from this visualisation. The first is that any company that regards organisational charts as a high priority for the intranet should think again, and quickly. I have never understood the fascination that some of my clients have had with organisational charts. They may indicate reporting lines, but nothing much else in my opinion. The second lesson is that information architecures based on organisational structure are going to be outdated by the time the CMS is warmed up in the morning.  A couple of years ago I was working with a multinational company on an intranet strategy around moving the intranet from an organisation model to a thematic model. The resistance to doing so was high. Just as I delivered my final report a new CEO took over and totally changed the structure of the company.  It took the company intranet about a year to catch up.

The third lesson is that as the organisation changes so do formal and social networks. Having experienced a major reorganisation I know from experience how close friends in the same department become strangers in a set of new departments with different reporting lines. I do wish that the people who write about the benefits of social networks would only do so after at experiencing at least two major organisational changes in two different organisations. There are benefits and I’m all in favour of social networks, but they seem to me to need more management than the more formal intranet.

The final lesson is that search may not be perfect but it is very good at ignoring organisational reorganisation and finding information and people on a structure-independent basis. However this ability can often be strangled by problems in rebuilding the security model so that confidential information stays confidential. If only!

I can see myself using this video quite often in my presentations in 2013 and I am very grateful to Chris for spotting and tweeting it.

Martin White