Book Review: The Web of Inclusion

Sally Helgesen’s The Web of Inclusion, published in 1995, is by no means a new book on leadership, but it still holds many lessons that apply in today’s business environment.  Billed as ‘A new architecture for building great organizations,’ Helgesen focuses largely on formal organizational structure and the role of individuals in that structure.  She presents the concept of a web as preferable to the highly structured org charts that served industrial-age business better than they serve today’s knowledge-based organizations.  Viewing an organization as a web, connections cross traditional departmental boundaries, and these non-traditional connections and the idea of flexibility are both central to the success of modern businesses.

The world we live in today can be viewed in more complex terms and is changing more rapidly than ever before, often in a manner that is unpredictable.  Helgesen describes her notion of a ‘web of inclusion’ “both as a pattern, a model for coherently ordering people and their tasks; and as a process, a way of thinking and acting, of behaving and solving problems as they arise” (p. 19).  The web represents a flatter structure, with primary leadership residing at the central point of a roughly circular structure, with lines representing connections radiating outward from the center, and larger concentric circles also moving outward and representing other sets of connections between people in the organization.

Additional characteristics of a real-life web hold a central place in Helgesen’s philosophy, as well.  The web is organic and ever-changing.  She believes the organic nature of a web is better suited to human function in general, providing an environment that is more comfortable for people to reside in.  Individual resources can be shifted from one place on the web to another with the focus remaining on task, not on hierarchical position.  A web is also fairly open at its edges, allowing for better flow of information at the edges of the organization, and from outside the organization.  Empowering individuals that hold positions on the “front line” can eliminate bureaucracy and allow employees to act more quickly and effectively to benefit the customers and partners with which they interact.

The primary principles Helgesen focuses on when examining the web from the perspective of process include: 1) Webs operate by means of open communication across levels, 2) Webs blur distinctions between conception and execution, 3) Webs create lasting networks that redistribute power in the organization, 4) Webs serve as a vehicle for constant reorganization, 5) Webs embrace the world outside the organization, 6) Webs evolve through a process of trial and error. (pp. 24-31).

After describing what her concept of the web is, she goes on to share five detailed case studies of organizations that illustrate one or more of the characteristics of a web of inclusion, and analyzes their success based on these principles.  The book is an easy read, and the case studies are engaging and interesting.  Helgesen writes with an energy and excitement that quickly draw the reader in.  For a business title, this book reads more like a novel, especially in the case studies, and I found it difficult to put down.

In a future post, I will look at how Helgesen’s concept of a web of inclusion aligns with the core principles of Complexity Leadership Theory, which relies on viewing organizations as Complex Adaptive Systems.

Helgesen, S. (1995). The Web of Inclusion. New York: Doubleday.

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