Think of organizations as intricate networks of communication channels—meetings, reports, calls, workshops, and other interactions. Communication channels are especially important in organizations that are organized into specialized units or departments. They help to align with strategic objectives, ensuring that each unit’s efforts contribute to the organization’s overarching goals. How this network is structured significantly shapes what leaders and other members find crucial, how they direct their day-to-day efforts, and where they focus their attention. The “pipes and prisms” of this attention architecture determine when, where, and how decisions are discussed and made, involving specific individuals and adhering to certain protocols.
While this organizational architecture might seem unchanging and dictated by upper management based on their vision and preferences, our study published in the journal Strategic Organization reveals that these ‘pipes’ aren’t rigid. They respond not only to top management teams but also to other organizational actors, adding dynamism to our understanding of attention architecture and the agency of mid-level actors.
Strategic shifts within an organization lead to changes in attention architecture
When an organization alters its strategy as a consequence of new technologies, emerging players, or shifts in the external environment, the attention of leaders naturally shifts too, resulting in changes to attention structures. However, such changes can bring both positive and negative outcomes for those who work with communication channels – mid-level employees. The communication channels they contribute to can gain or lose its importance. This was evident in our study of professional strategists at Ericsson (large telecommunication firm) who, despite losing their central role initially due to strategic transformation, managed to regain their position. Two strategies aided their resurgence.
Expanding and Connecting ‘Pipes’
First, the group we studied reinvented some of the communication channels. They explored digital tools, recognizing the potential of involving new actors in established practices, such as understanding industry trends. Traditionally, this task was performed by experts. Mid-level employees also harnessed existing connections with core customers, proposing a Customer Engagement Group to align with top management’s focus on customer satisfaction. This experimental approach aims to add novel elements to existing channels, often by broadening participation through digital tools like crowdsourcing or online communities. Such experimental thinking is the underlying logic of reinvention – what is the novel aspect we can add to the existing channel? Extending the number of participants involved in a communication channel could be one of the promising ways to reinvent or expand the existing ‘pipe’. The availability of digital tools like crowdsourcing or online communities and chats are useful in it.
This experimental approach aims to add novel elements to existing channels, often achieved by broadening participation through digital tools like crowdsourcing or online communities.
Reviving and Repurposing ‘Pipes’
Another way to align communication channels with the evolving architecture is by revitalizing outdated channels. We called this renewal. To reintegrate old practices, it’s essential to identify gaps or areas where communication channels can bring value. Networking skills are crucial here. We observed how forming alliances with groups entrenched in the new attention architecture is the key. The group of professional strategists partnered with the technologists, who managed essential communication channels for top management decisions. The professional strategists’ strategic knowledge and industry expertise complemented the technological prowess of the technologists, successfully reintroducing joint strategy meetings into the new communication architecture. This approach of repurposing channels involves identifying how and when channels can be useful in addressing new strategic challenges. The selective reuse of familiar practices is the underlying logic of renewal. It is important to consider: what are the core communication channels for Top Management Team? Who is the core player in them? And what value can we add by partnering with those players? The ability to evaluate the new communication structure and clear value proposition for potential partners plays a pivotal role in reviving old ‘pipes.
This approach of repurposing channels involves identifying how and when channels can be useful in addressing new strategic challenges.
Organizational shifts might be an opportunity for different professional groups to regain their importance
Any transformation that an organization undergoes in its structure, culture, processes, strategies, or other fundamental aspects present opportunities for diverse professional groups to reclaim significance. The story of Ericsson’s strategists exemplifies how organizations can adapt to significant changes through flexibility and innovation. When traditional structures are disrupted, various employee groups, from strategy professionals to HR, Finance, and Marketing, can maintain their importance by creatively redesigning communication channels. As technologies like AI increasingly challenge professional roles, the ability to reinvent and renew communication channels empowers employees to strengthen their position, amidst major organizational changes.