The Grammarphobia Blog

Is the matrix the message?

Q: What is your feeling about a “matrix organization” vs. a “matrixed organization”? Is either one correct?

A: Well, you won’t find them in standard dictionaries, but they’re alive and well online. Both terms get about the same number of hits in Google searches, somewhat under half a million.

More to the point, you can find entries for “matrix organization” (not “matrixed organization”) in the Oxford English Dictionary and in online business dictionaries.

That’s reason enough to go with “matrix organization,” assuming your audience is familiar with the term. We hadn’t heard of it until your question popped up in our inbox.

The OED defines the term as a business structure “in which project teams are formed of staff drawn from separate departments or functions within the organization.”

In a matrix organization, the dictionary says, “two or more lines of reporting, responsibility, or communication run through the same individual.”

The OED adds that such an organization, where the same person has two or more bosses, is “often used to supplement a traditional hierarchical structure.”

An online reference site, BusinessDirectory.com, explains that a matrix organization draws “employees from different functional disciplines for assignment to a team without removing them from their respective positions.”

The term “matrix organization,” according to BusinessDirectory.com, “gets its name from its resemblance to a table (matrix) where every element is included in a row as well as a column.”

The website says the structure was developed by NASA and its suppliers, but the earliest OED citations for the usage make no reference to the agency.

The OED’s earliest citation for the use of “matrix” in this management sense (but without the word “organization”) is from a 1959 anthology of articles on business structure.

The first citation that uses the actual term “matrix organization” is from the 1964 summer issue of Business Horizons, a journal of the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University:

“The concept of a matrix organization entails an organizational system designed as a ‘web of relationships’ rather than a line and staff relationship of work performance.”

In other words, this matrix isn’t much like the cyberpunk simulated reality that Keanu Reeves challenges in the sci-fi Matrix movies.

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