Book Review: The Flat Army

While at the American Society for Training Development 2013 conference in Dallas, the book Flat Army: Creating a Connected and Engaged Organization* was a hot topic for discussion. It was highly recommended across the organization. I finally had an opportunity to sit down to read the book, and I was not disappointed. There was a lot in this book that I agree with; however, I did find it a little tiring in places because of its repetitiveness.

Dan Pontefract does make a case that most organizations are not engaging and producing at full capacity. Simply put,  organizations and associated leaders are not fully utilizing their employees. “It’s a question of maturity; leaders cannot fathom the loss of control, yet paradoxically, it’s the more creative and less hierarchical leader who is, in fact, empowering his or her team and getting better results” (Pontefract, 2013, Location 316). Pontefract advocates that leaders must become more connected, inclusive, and collaborative so that employees become more engaged. He notes lack of engagement is costing organizations an average or $10,000 per year per employee.

Flat Army covers twelve chapters over 328 pages. Chapters 1 and 2 outline the case for becoming a connected leader as well as provide a brief history on how organizations and leaders became “rigid”. In Chapter 3, Pontefract introduces the Flat Army Philosophy and its components. These components are the Connected Leader Attributes, Participative Leader Framework, Collaborative Leader Action Model, Pervasive Learning, and Collaboration Technologies.  In Chapter 3, he briefly describes each of these components.

Throughout the book, Pontefract uses great examples of actual companies in various alignment with the Flat Army Philosophy. Some of these companies do not adhere to the model and results are noted, while others are great examples of the philosophy in action.

In Chapters 4 through 6, he discusses the 15 Connected Leader Attributes: trusting, involving, empathizing, developing, communicating, analyzing, deciding, delivering, cooperating, clowning, coaching, measuring, exploring, adapting, and bettering. Each one typically has a real world example tied to it, and guidelines for implementing the attribute.

Chapter 7 focuses on the Participative Leader Framework. Pontefract first discusses the importance of a network and how it can benefit the organization. He talks about the importance of nurturing your network through consuming and contributing. This should continue continuously. “It must be continuous; it must occur with relative frequency such that knowledge, information and ideas continue to be given and gained, networks steadily increase in size, our personal engagement stays on an upward trajectory, and lastly our performance ability prospers” (Pontefract, 2013, Location 3010). We must continue to look for opportunities to engage with our network; he provides a number of ideas from giving Webinars to participating in a book club. “It is incumbent upon leaders to carry out two actions: commit time to building your own direct professional network at work; and encourage and help your team to do the same” (Pontefract, 2013, Location 3050). Pontefract is also a strong advocate for using technology to network, collaborate, and produce. This was a very important chapter for me.

The Collaborative Leader Action Model (CLAM) is fully discusses in chapter 8. This is one of the key chapters to creating an engaged organizations. “The Flat Army concept is not about mutual decision making throughout an organization; rather, it is about becoming more engaged, productive, connected and collaborative so that employees feel part of the equation and not simply numbers in a database. Employees are not the ultimate decision makers but they need to be part of the process” (Pontefract, 2013, Location 3403). It is all about developing an inclusive environment from conception through completion. As Pontefract points out, if some elements are missing the experience is diminished.

The other day, I gave a presentation to our Extension Administration Team on informal learning and its impact on the organization, and I commented to them that I thought Pontefract wrote his chapter 9 based on the slide deck I created for the presentation. Chapter 9 focuses on creating a pervasive learning environment – “learning happens everywhere”. In this chapter, Pontefract outlines the Pervasive Learning Model, “33 percent formal learning and leadership 33 percent informal learning and leadership 33 percent social learning and leadership” (Pontefract, 2013, Location 3829). All aspects of learning must be included to help the organization improve.

Chapter 10 focuses on how to leverage technology to become a more connected leader. Pontefract does not miss any of my favorite technologies. He includes Evernote, blogging, Twitter, instant messaging, comments, discussion boards, wikis, document sharing, LinkedIn, badging, and tagging. What a great chapter! He also introduced a new term, at least for me: continuous partial attention. “Proper discipline and techniques must be taught and learned such that employees do not become addicted to such technologies nor, as mentioned previously, do they fall into the potentially negative vortex of continuous partial attention” (Pontefract, 2013, Location 4568).

Finally, Pontefract provides more examples of the Flat Army concept in action as well as how to implement the Flat Army concept as a leader and in the organization. These topics are covered in the final two chapters.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book, and I would have no reservation recommending it to others. Pontefract makes a strong case for a need to change how we do business, as well as provide a map to change. I have personally been on the share learning bandwagon and was nodding my head in a approval with much of what he had to say. This book should definitely be on a leader’s bookshelf.

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