Matrix Organizations: Transcending Time and Space

IESE Prof. Mike Rosenberg: "Matrix structures enable companies to boost productivity by coalescing the diverse perspectives and areas of expertise of people who typically wouldn’t work together." | Illustration: Norman Gracia

IESE Prof. Mike Rosenberg: “Matrix structures enable companies to boost productivity by coalescing the diverse perspectives and areas of expertise of people who typically wouldn’t work together.” | Illustration: Norman Gracia

Matrix organizations first emerged in the aerospace industry in the 1960s, when U.S. government bids required firms to develop detailed charts outlining how their project management teams would get the job done. Rather than upending their management systems to adapt to contract requisites, companies created horizontal units and superimposed them across existing vertical hierarchies. And voilà! The matrix was born and life in the multinational labor pool was never the same again.

For many in the global workforce, the upshot of this lateral coordination is a crisscrossed mesh of solid- and dotted-line relationships: employees report to a primary boss for function-specific objectives, as well as work for managers on different business dimensions like strategic projects and specific product lines, client accounts or markets. Matrix structures have both advocates and detractors, described in a recent Harvard Business Review article as “those who love to hate the matrix, and those who hate to love the matrix.” Like it or not, however, the matrix is here to stay.

“Matrix structures enable companies to boost productivity by coalescing the diverse perspectives and areas of expertise of people who typically wouldn’t work together,” explains Prof. Mike Rosenberg of IESE’s Department of Strategic Management.

“That said, it’s important to remember that organizations are ultimately organic networks of personal relationships. In this context, managers need to know how to map out the political terrain and understand the social dynamics at play behind corporate decisions, which may be driven or at least influenced by individual agendas and power struggles.”

Effective leadership is demanding enough in national contexts, yet its level of complexity intensifies when language barriers, cultural divides and geographical distances are baked into the mix.

“Managing across space and time is an issue that uniquely impacts global matrix structures,” said Prof. Rosenberg. “In order to align team members and push initiatives forward, managers in a matrix need to implement the optimal collaborative tools and processes. Managing culturally diverse teams, on the other hand, is a leadership capacity that requires developing finely attuned cross-cultural awareness and promoting actions that respect these differences.”

The “Doing Business Globally: Leading in a Matrix Organization” program was specifically developed for senior-level executives who aspire to magnify their impact in international matrix systems. Launched initially in 2012 at IESE New York, the immersive, four-day program will head to Europe for the first time ever in 2019, when the school’s Barcelona campus welcomes the next intake of global participants on March 26-29.

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