The global recession and threat of a jobless recovery have converged with decade-long seismic shifts in the workplace (Table 1) to create profound implications for today's employees. These volatile changes have been dubbed the "new normal," where long-held assumptions have changed, perhaps permanently.

This new normal, defined by a changed economic reality, requires a different order of efficiency to "enable businesses and organizations to simultaneously drive cost savings, improve productivity, and speed innovation," Steve Ballmer, Microsoft's CEO, wrote on his New Efficiency website.

In many organizations, a matrix structure is implemented to address the requirement to do more with less and become more agile. With implications for organizational design, rewards, and learning solutions, the matrix structure, which focuses on horizontal as well as vertical management, has become more widespread as a result of globalization and the need to deliver products and services to the marketplace at a faster pace than ever before.

First introduced in the aerospace industry in the 1960s, the matrix structure can have several different organizing principles and various permutations, with the underlying purpose to facilitate parallel, instead of sequential progress of task development (Table 2). Requiring greater coordination across multiple stakeholders, the matrix structure is less straightforward than the more traditional command-and-control management approaches.

Benefits of the matrix

Despite its inherent complexity, the matrix approach is increasing in use, particularly by top companies. According to the Hay Group, the majority of the World's Most Admired Companies use this structure for competitive advantage. The compelling benefits include

  • deploying expertise as needed throughout the enterprise for specific initiatives
  • promoting cross-functional problem solving
  • reducing cost by leveraging resources
  • creating a balance of power between functions
  • balancing competing priorities, such as global vs. local or product vs. geography
  • fostering innovation, as multiple perspectives focus on key issues
  • accelerating products and services to market.

By consolidating expertise to deploy to projects as needed, the matrix structure can promote more efficient use of corporate resources and leverage economies of scale. At Avon Products, for example, the matrix structure was initially adopted in global business units, such as supply chain, as a way to rationalize resources and gain alignment of goals. The application of the matrix has increased over time.

Renee E. Russell, executive director of HR and change management, service model transformation at Avon explains, "The matrix quickly broadened to obtain alignment across multiple functions, such as HR, IT, finance, and marketing."

At Avon, the matrix structure promotes greater alignment. "We have more of a focus on the value that we offer in our products, and the matrix has helped us to create alignment of people and processes to bring our value proposition to life," Russell says. "The emphasis on working productively is reinforced through the performance management process."

In addition to the benefits of the matrix for internal efficiencies and collaboration, a company's external marketplace image may also be enhanced. "As a consumer products company, the matrix is important from a marketing perspective to leverage our branding around the world and build consistency," says Russell.

Even in organizations that use a formal matrix structure on a fairly limited basis, such as Verizon Communications (where this approach is primarily used in the IT function and Verizon Business to leverage Network Engineers and other professionals on behalf of the customer), greater integration across functions is a given.

"The need for information flowing across the organization has increased exponentially due to the competitive environment and the relentless pace of technology. So even in groups that don't have a formal matrix structure, it is essential to maximize the horizontal flow of information so that systems, relationships, and processes work together as seamlessly as possible and we leverage our scale," says Michael P. Flanagan, senior staff consultant at Verizon Communications.

At another end of the spectrum in terms of usage, Bristol-Myers Squibb Company is heavily matrixed throughout its global organization. "We have the matrix every way it can be organized, including geographically, functionally, and on a product basis," says Jane Luciano, vice president of global learning and organization development at Bristol-Myers Squibb. "Based on our size and [the fact that we are] in a highly regulated industry, the matrix helps us to gain control of issues as they travel around the globe and to leverage economies of scale."

Challenges with the matrix approach

The matrix structure is complicated, so it can have the unintended consequence of reducing intended goals of speed, innovation, and collaboration. Multiple factors can inhibit successful matrix functioning, including

  • reduced accountability
  • internal competitiveness
  • slower, not faster decision making
  • greater conflict
  • focus on internal politics at the expense of an external customer focus.

Arguably, the current economic climate may foster some of these behaviors if not addressed. For example, when employees are concerned about job security, individuals may revert to acting as a "lone wolf" or strive to be the project hero, rather than leveraging the diverse capabilities that matrix members offer.

Leadership and organizational values are critical to reducing these dysfunctional behaviors. The recently published "Towers Watson 2010 Global Workforce Study" found that in the midst of fundamental changes in the employee-employer contract, having leaders who connect with employees on an emotional level is more important than ever; 79 percent look for a senior leader who is trustworthy.

Organizational support for the matrix

In addition to visible leaders who model desired behaviors, organizational culture and values are also key drivers for effective matrix functioning and clearly support the matrix at Avon. "One of the things that really helps at Avon is that we have a collaborative culture, and our values and leadership behaviors help support effective matrix functioning," Russell says.

Corporate values also play an important role at Verizon Communications. "Creating a shared vision is a key factor," says Flanagan. "One of the best ways to break down silos in large organizations is to have a clear vision that gives context to everyone's roles and responsibilities. Communicating frequently and consistently about goals and purpose is essential. In the midst of change and complexity, our core values become a key driver of behavior for the company and keep the organization focused on delivering for the customer."

Russell describes the matrix approach at Avon as "tremendously helpful in terms of leveraging best practices across the world; for example, with talent and performance management processes and sales operations planning."

This benefit is also being realized at Bristol-Myers Squibb, which operates in the highly regulated pharmaceutical industry. "The matrix has enabled us to upgrade and promote excellence around core capabilities, so we can be very purposeful in developing functional expertise in specific disciplines, such as marketing, medical, HR, or finance excellence. We can define and develop skill sets and reduce variability, even though our employees are globally dispersed," Luciano says.

Making the matrix work

To make the matrix work, some of the critical organizational factors include

  • a mapped-out organizational design for greater clarity
  • visible, consistent leadership support
  • aligned goals, both vertical and horizontal
  • rewards that promote collaboration and joint decision making
  • clearly defined operating-governance process and practices
  • clear accountabilities and decision rights
  • talent management strategies, including recruitment and retention approaches, that support the matrix
  • aligned performance measures at the next level up
  • diagnostic tools to monitor both behavior and results
  • an "enterprise lens" as the vision of success, rather than individual or functional achievement.

Desired matrix behaviors must be reinforced at an organizational level. "Operating in the matrix is a key competency that our employees are measured on, not only by their immediate managers, but other key stakeholders within the matrix," Russell explains.

Alignment is also emphasized across Bristol-Myers Squibb, says Luciano, and has "to be focused organizationally and not functionally. Consistent, shared corporate-level goals are an example of this. We have had to wrestle with this in other areas; for example, where do decision rights sit? We have had to think through who is responsible for people management and management of work, decision making, and accountability to ensure that there is alignment to deliver on business goals."

While organizational design is essential to matrix effectiveness, the formal structure alone is not sufficient to produce intended results. "We have had to transcend structure to make the best decisions about distribution of resources and finding the right balance between addressing local market conditions, business dynamics and corporate goals," Luciano says.

Technology is another organizational support tool that has many applications to promote alignment and make the matrix work more effectively. In the case of Avon, although matrix members may be operating remotely, there is a commitment to have at least some face-to-face time - interaction which may foster a higher level of comfort and trust.

When travel restrictions prohibit in-person interactions, a vast array of technological tools may be leveraged as a proxy to build relationships, such as internal social networking, online collaboration tools, and teleconferences.

"We leverage a number of technology tools to enhance matrix functioning, including global town halls, teleconferencing, radio shows, WebEx, and telepresence rooms," says Russell. "Many global projects have a dedicated website and all of these things promote communication and alignment."

Learning support for the matrix

Clearly, the matrix requires a set of organizational supports, including defined roles, aligned reward systems, and visible executive support - not all of which are within the learning function's purview.

However, training and development professionals have an important role to play to promote effective matrix functioning. Some of the tools that Russell of Avon employs include using a RACI chart (Table 3) and the team model designed by Patrick Leniconi (Figure 1). Russell stresses clarity and simplicity.

"When I'm working with a matrixed team, I always start by emphasizing that they have to be clear and aligned on the strategy, goals, structure, and rewards; and most importantly link their goals to that of their key stakeholders. They have to understand how what they want to do affect others," Russell says.

At Bristol-Myers Squibb, learning professionals have "defined a framework and roles in decision making, clarifying who gets to make which decisions with what advisors and have implemented a learning process around this," says Luciano.

"We have learned over time that when there is a lack of cross-functional alignment, it is not typically at the goal level, where we reach agreement quickly about intent, but more typically at the resource and work level. From an OD and learning perspective, we have helped with this issue by chartering at an initiative level and helping people think through resources, interdependencies, risks, resources and constraints."

Five matrix learning solutions

Here are five high-impact ways in which the training and development function can facilitate matrix effectiveness:

  1. Embed matrix best practices into leadership development programs. Assess the degree to which your organization's program design supports effective matrix functioning, and make modifications where needed.
  2. Leverage leader-led learning, where executives visibly support the behaviors that will promote the matrix. Long promoted as a high-impact way to demonstrate organizational support, bringing executives into the classroom to reinforce the importance of the matrix structure to company strategy is a highly effective way to promote desired results.
  3. Provide specific training on the matrix and promote best practices. Targeted approaches, which may incorporate formal and informal learning, can be offered to all employees, not only leaders, who work in a matrix structure. In addition, matrix best practices may be posted and shared through discussion boards and other forums.
  4. Incorporate matrix learning into onboarding materials. When new employees who will have significant matrix interactions are transitioning into the organization, onboarding should include this focus as part of the learning mix.
  5. Teach critical behaviors, including collaboration, communication skills, conflict management, team alignment, emotional intelligence, and building cross-functional networks. Pivotal to the success of a matrix structure, these learned skills have relevance for all organizational structures and can be woven throughout curricula for employees at different levels and functions.

The new normal, characterized by the requirements of "doing more with less" and increased agility, is likely to be a permanent feature of the workplace going forward. "The current economic climate accentuates the need for a matrix mindset. Customers and consumers are spending less and there is a corresponding requirement to manage resources in an optimal way," says Flanagan.

The new financial reality requires many shifts in behavior and attitudes. Learning professionals can help their organizations navigate new requirements to promote effective working relationships that foster growth and profitability - even in a downturn. "As a large global organization, our size can detract from our ability to build trust," Luciano says. "From a culture perspective, we are very focused on ways to build connections and trust that will make our relationship culture be a competitive advantage. Our learning efforts are focused on ways to help people be open enough to listen to one another, to connect and collaborate and have constructive dialogue."

Promoting critical success factors for matrix effectiveness - such as collaboration and teamwork - through targeted learning design is important in the new normal. Organization will benefit because it will enable them to execute the matrix more effectively, and individual workers will benefit because it will help them develop highly portable, critical competencies. t+d