co·​lo·​ni·​al·​ism /kəˈlōnēəˌlizəm/
:the practice of extending and maintaining political and economic control over another people or area

When you hear the word colonialism, I imagine most people immediately think about the 16th-18th century expansion of European nation’s such as Great Britain, France, Spain, and the Netherlands. Researchers estimate that by the First World War, Europeans controlled 84% of the globe. While certainly factors such as religion and fame propelled that global spread, one could argue it was the desire for control over trade and the riches of the world that was of greatest importance. During colonialism, smaller countries see a flow of their resources – human and economic – back to the more powerful nation.

When I first moved to Alberta in 2000, I was fascinated by the province’s population distribution. At the time, Alberta had a population of 2,879,743 with 52.4% living in the two major cities – Calgary (860,749) and Edmonton (648,284). Even more interesting, at 68,712, the third most populated city where I lived (Lethbridge) was a fraction (8.0% and 10.6%) of the size of the other two.

But here’s the kicker. I vividly remember one day I had just finished printing out a stack of cheques to various vendors of my business at the time. This was early 2000’s and when you mailed cheques in Lethbridge you had to separate them between two Canada Post mailboxes – one for local and another for out-of-town mail. Here’s what I noticed: pest control (~$100) – local, printing (~200) – local, mat rental (~$300) – local, utilities (~$5,000) – out of town, loan payment (~$10,000) – out of town, rent (~$15,000) – out of town. I was literally mailing the wealth we had generated to organizations out of town. That’s textbook colonialism.

Clearly there was an economic transfer happening but just as harmful, one of the constant themes I heard from high school and university graduates in Lethbridge, was that they needed (or couldn’t wait) to move to Calgary. There goes the people too.

Does that flow of economic and human resources have a long-term impact? (Side note – I’d love to calculate/analyze GDP-style numbers for these population centres so if you are an economist, send me a message!)

Fast forward to 2021, Alberta’s population is now 4,480,486 with 54.8% living in the two major cities – Calgary (1,305,550) and Edmonton (1,151,635). And at 99,846, the third biggest (now Red Deer – coincidentally located between the two) is approximately 7.6% and 8.7% of the other two. Apparently, the effect is getting worse.

So what does all of this have to do with an organization design you might wonder?

As I mentioned already on this website, since hearing the quote “All organizations are perfectly designed to get the results they get” I’ve been fascinated by the power of organization design to not only create better working teams, but provide some of the answers to larger societal, economic, and environmental issues.

Just as we can see remarkable improvements in organization results, individual satisfaction, and member development in smaller teams based on a collaborative organizational state, the same is possible in larger organizational structures. To be clear, when we design organizations of any size – including a province – using the underlying assumptions of the control-based organizational state, with it’s unequal distribution of power and authority, we will see the type of disparities highlighted by Alberta’s population statistics.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s time to #ReThinkOrgs

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