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How a fire created an organizational design case study in functional structure

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Forty years ago, a California wildfire burned a half million acres, took 16 lives and destroyed 700 structures. The devastation was channeled into a movement to develop a better way for firefighters to organize themselves, their resources and actions in hopes a fire of this size would not rage again. Today, fire fighters and all emergency response agencies organize themselves using a structure developed from that experience so long ago called the “Incident Command System”.

The Incident Command System (ICS) is really just a functional structure meant to ebb and flow with the circumstances facing a response organization. The structure can be used by different types of organizations of any size for any type of event (earthquake, shooting, Ebola, etc.). After all, you never know what you may need or who will be available during a disaster and having all players speaking the same language is invaluable.

While ICS is not perfect, it provides an excellent, public domain example of how to develop a functional structure and organizational chart. ICS is based on a functional structure which is organized around major activity groups such as finance, manufacturing and marketing. All employees in a set function are managed together to provide sharing knowledge and standardization. This is a good structure for smaller, simpler organizations that don’t have to account for multiple product lines, geography or multiple end user groups.

Furthermore, it serves as the ideal starting point even if you ultimately select another model. None of the models are ideal for organizations that frequently work collaboratively because hierarchy and collaboration are conflicting strategies. (That issue will be addressed in a future article.)

A good functional structure helps an organization get the most out of its resources when it is thoughtfully designed and methodical so it takes advantage of the consistency this model provides. ICS provides a great case study in how to identify the primary functions, sub functions and create an organizational scheme that is consistent in terminology.

Identify the primary functions.

The first step in utilizing a functional structure is identifying the functions of your organization. The best way to brainstorm this is to think about what you produce (products/services), how you communicate externally and what support is needed to make it all happen (facilities, purchasing, etc.). During disasters, all response organizations use the same five (color coded) primary functions led by the Incident Commander which is emergency management talk for ‘the boss’.

  • COMMAND is in charge and communicates with all external entities.
  • OPERATIONS is whatever the primary mission is (e.g. hospitals diagnose and treat).
  • PLANNING collects and analyzes data about the situation.
  • LOGISTICS supports the response environment and orders supplies, equipment and human resources.
  • FINANCE tracks the expenses and pays the bills (you hope).

Identify the sub-functions.

These five functions have been analyzed and depth added to each. While there are quite a few sub-functions on the hospital example below that is because hospital response is complex. In general – it is best to keep a macro perspective on how you break each primary function down. (Click the graphic for a larger PDF version.)

Create an organizational scheme that is consistent in terminology.

In a perfect world or one with a large and competent Human Resources Department, job titles and unit names are standardized across the organization. Many organizations aren’t quite this organized which can contribute to the confusion over authority, power and reporting order. All organizations should be consistent in how they name business units and jobs – especially those with supervisory or management responsibilities.

The terms used by the Incident Command System are military-influenced and perhaps not appropriate for most organizations. However, they provide an excellent illustration on how to organize sub-units and job titles so hierarchy is clear and methodical.

Organizational LevelTitleSupport Position
Incident CommandIncident CommanderDeputy
Command StaffOfficerAssistant
General Staff (Section)ChiefDuputy
Strike Team/Task ForceLeaderSingle Resource Boss

ICS is so detailed it has defined what each of the terms above actually means and translated that to the job descriptions and Job Action Sheets. I won’t bore you with those details but FEMA will if you are interested.

The Incident Command System has evolved over the last 40 years and is currently used by thousands of people. It is perhaps the only well-documented, public domain example of how a functional structure can be and is used. While far from perfect – this example helps illustrate how to identify the primary functions, sub functions and create an organizational scheme that is consistent in terminology. Collaboration and organizational design are complex endeavors. Identifying the functions that your organization relies on is a helpful exercise in design even if you ultimately select to organize around products, geography or customs.

About Megan Wilmoth

Megan Wilmoth has built and managed products ranging from custom software for Fortune 1000 companies to marketing platforms for manufactures. She’s overseen work that impacts hundreds of organizations, thousands of individuals and millions of data points. Her ability to plan and mitigate allow her to succeed in whatever is thrown her way. She is President of Planosaurus, a consulting firm that helps organizations plan to do more with less.

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  • Megan Wilmoth,
  • January 7, 2015

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