02 September 2007

Hierarchy and Organizations - A Response to David Weinberger

In David Weinberger’s latest issue of his every-so-often newsletter, Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization, he responds to a query about hierarchies in organizations – specifically, are all organizations hierarchies? David replies,
A hierarchy worth the name ought to be a persistent social structure with well-defined and comprehensive power or status relationships, in which each node has exactly one superior node. We can loosen that up somewhat to accommodate the complexities of modern business, but that's what the paradigmatic hierarchy looks like.

Corporations have a legally-defined hierarchy that covers a decision-making process and the legal accountability of the system. But, even within that hierarchy, much of the work is done across and regardless of the hierarchy. In fact, many organizations in my experience are embarrassed by rank. The CEO talks about being just another worker. (See Jack Welch's "Jack: From the Gut" for an example of this.) Managers don't like to order people to do things; they'd rather pretend that we're all equals, working collaboratively. That's why we don't salute our managers in the business world. At least, not explicitly. Instead, we pretend to listen while they talk.

Organizations that aren't corporations may also have ranks and status systems, but that doesn't mean that it's right to characterize them as hierarchies. Wikipedia, for example, has an emergent hierarchy, but the hierarchy is there primarily to handle exceptions and problems. Likewise, it'd be a mistake (imo) to look at the open source movement, find the hierarchical elements ("Linus decides stuff!") and think that it's fundamentally a hierarchical movement. One could just as well find the collaborative, non-hierarchical elements and highlight those. Indeed, that would obviously be a better way of thinking about the open source movement.

His characterization is more or less correct in practice. However, I would suggest that it's not the most useful way to think about organizations, the dynamics of their multiplicity of interactions, and the effects they create in their environment of relationships. Think about the manager “working collaboratively” with her subordinates, or the Wikipedians with their “emergent hierarchy” that responds to exceptions and problems. At times when a decision that incurs responsibility and accountability is to be made, the apparently absent hierarchy appears like the genie from the lamp. The person atop the local hierarchy – emergent or not – takes bureaucratic responsibility for making the decision, governed by the administrative principles that have either been long established by policy and practice, or according to some ad hoc process grounded in mission, vision, values, and organizational culture.

The BAH way of doing things – referring to Bureaucracy, Administration, and Hierarchy – has been well-trained in all of us in Western society (and elsewhere as well). Almost every modern institution and social structure that provides the foundational elements for education, governance, economics, and religion can be traced back centuries to their roots as European BAH artefacts, emerging variously from the 15th through 19th centuries. It seems reasonable to me that people might well revert to their first, ingrained organizational language – their managerial mother tongue, if you will – when faced with critical decisions, exceptions, problems, and especially struggles for power and control.

I think David and I differ on the point of the essential nature of an organization (which is not surprising, given that David came out of philosophy that has lots to say about the nature of essential nature). For me, the essential, characterizing nature of an organization manifests in times of criticality or trouble, at times when what might pass for instinct in a human being would otherwise dominate decisions and actions. One could argue that someone must take responsibility for a decision, and be accountable for the subsequent consequences (although that point is arguable when one examines recent corporate malfeasance, foreign policy, economic turmoil, safety lapses in the food supply and manufactured goods). Even if such responsibiity-taking were so in practice, that very notion of an individual bearing ultimate responsibility has its management roots in Frederick Winslow Taylor’s scientific management of the very early 20th century, Max Weber’s bureaucracy, and Henri Fayol’s administrative model of management, the (un)holy trinity of modern management practices. Fundamentally – by which I mean, to what does one appeal when the chips are down – almost all contemporary organizations are BAH: bureaucratically determined so that there is a primary emphasis on the function or “office” rather than the individual; administratively controlled, with practices, policies and procedures to ensure consistency of nominal outcome, rather than total environmental effect; and hierarchically controlled (emergent or explicit), with rank and power overwhelmingly being the determining factors in whose voice is heard the loudest in issues of control.

In practical terms, the pure hierarchy of yesteryear is seen very rarely, even in the modern military. (See here, here, and especially Alberts and Hayes' influential 2003 Command and Control manifesto, Power to the Edge). However, the fact that we so often resort to BAH principles – even emergent BAH principles – in decision making for both corporate and non-corporate organizations inextricably ties contemporary society to industrial age principles, and the utilitarian ethics, and problematics that are so often identified with modern capitalism, neo-liberal economic policy, and globalization. David rightly points out that many, if not most, contemporary organizations do practice more collaborative, cooperative, and non-hierarchical styles of management in day-to-day activities. He also implicitly suggests that what we need is a better way of thinking about organizations – and not just unusual examples like the open source movement, Wikipedia or Craigslist.

In an interesting way, viewing these relatively young organizations as anomalies or exceptions makes the same mistake that people made when considering the Internet as “just another communication medium.” Most people who think about such things realize that the ‘net, and analogous connection technologies like mobile communication devices, are manifestations of a profound shift in human interaction and engagement. Similarly, I think it is important to shift our conception of society's structuring institutions, and that includes organizations – both the new and radical, and old and traditional – to one that incorporates the effects of this profound shift as a fundamental aspect of that conception.

David suggests that some contemporary organizations might not usefully be characterized as being hierarchical. I agree, and go somewhat farther: I think that BAH characterization (including such concepts as function, mission, vision, accountability) of any organization might have outlived its usefulness, and should be replaced – which is why I’m offering up the Valence Theory of Organization.

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