When I was working as an organisational development specialist, we often talked about the ‘shadow organisation’ the parts of an organisation that just found ways to get things done, almost regardless and in many cases in spite of the ‘formal’ channels. Formal channels are often slow, stuffed with bureaucracy and depend on the hierarchy and organisational flow chart; the shadow organisation can be quick(er), often ignore ‘the rules’ and depend on human networks. When you need a fix for your computer and you know that means raising a work request that needs your manager’s counter-signature before it is passed to IT where it gets prioritised by someone who doesn’t understand how important it is to you….is when you ring your friend Jenny in IT who you know can and will just fix it for you. That’s the shadow organisation in action.
Reading this article from The Conversation, I was reminded of how society has its shadow organisations as well.
During Covid19 lockdown, how many of us have found alternative ways to get our weekly food fix – including the growth of food banks – or moved to online shopping, or asked the neighbours to help, or even met the neighbours properly for the first time?
Surely volunteers making scrubs for NHS staff when ‘the system’ was failing them is a shadow organisation workaround?
or individuals and restaurateurs spontaneously making meals for and delivering them to NHS staff?
Or self-fabrication of face masks when the government’s advice is ambivalent?
Or the thousands of volunteers who participated in ‘adopt-a-granny’ movements?
Or…find your own example.
Shadow organisations emerge in order to solve a problem created by or inherent in organisations. They cannot be created and they do not react well to those who try to institutionalise them (“Oh, the shadow organisation works well, let’s give it formal recognition in our HR structure, pay scales etc’). As soon as the formal structures get involved they tend to bring with them targets and constraints and reporting, all of which are anathema to a smoothly, efficiently functioning shadow organisation.
What they need is to be left alone and for the key players (and there are often a few key links or focal points in these shadow organisations) to be protected from organisational interference.