February 26, 2011

Hierarchy starts with a ‘Higher Arc & Key’

The word hierarchy dates back to the 14th century and as with many command and control terms from long ago, there are religious connotations. Hierós is the Greek term for sacred or holy and arkhēs is the term for ruling. Combine these together and you get ‘head priest’. (hierárkhēs)

Over the years, Latin, French and English derivatives produced similar meanings. By the 17th century hierarchy became linked to the ranks of the clergy, cementing its relationship to religion. Nowadays, hierarchy can be found not only in religion, but in the military and in the corporate world through defined levels of management power and influence.

Which leads me to describe how I believe hierarchy starts with a ‘higher arc and key’.

Whether or not we should blame Frederick Winslow Taylor is inconsequential. Organizations, for the most part, have been established in an arc format of management and employees are constantly seeking new keys to open new doors of the arc.

Those keys often represent money, power and the ability to control decisions. Sometimes it may have to do with knowledge. The more keys you successfully hold, and thus the more doors you unlock, the more money, power and ability you hold to control future decisions.

The link between ‘command and control’ and ‘hierarchy’ is disturbingly evident.

Thus, employees are conditioned to individually seek out keys without regard for collaboration, sharing, and so on. The arc represents the fact two (or more) employees may be seeking out keys at the same moment in time, from opposite ends of the arc, causing fiefdoms and bureaucracies of hoarding, as they try in earnest to move up the arc.

The arc acts as the basis in which internal competition thrives.

The keys are merely the bait in which competitive behaviour is manifested.


What Do Others Say?

Alain de Vulpian, founder of Cofremca and Chairman of Sociovision states:

We are in the process of moving from a pyramidal, hierarchical society to a single-story society where heterarchical relationships dominate.

Gary Hamel and Bill Breen in The Future of Management help us with this citation from the book:

Hierarchies are very good at aggregating effort, at coordinating the activities of many people with widely varying roles. But they’re not very good at mobilizing effort, at inspiring people to go above and beyond. When it comes to mobilizing human capability, communities outperform bureaucracies.

Jon Husband treats us to the following:

We all know and understand hierarchy – the enduring principle of the institutions that govern us and in which we work and live. The people at the top of the institutions control the agendas and make the decisions, which are then “pushed” out and down to be executed, implemented, followed. That’s changing.

I think Verna Allee sums things up rather well for me in this piece, from her book The Future of Knowledge:

We are currently in a state of transition from one worldview to another. However, we face a dilemma. Because we have not completely adjusted our business models to the emerging worldview, we are experiencing emergent dynamics that we do not yet understand.


What To Do?

To defeat the arc, one must first recognize that situational hierarchy is necessary in today’s organization. Hierarchy for hierarchy’s sake is no way in which to run a company nowadays. Situational hierarchy, however, permits the organization the wherewithal to invoke decision-making power as necessary. For example, it’s not as though an organization is going to conduct an open vote when the senior leadership team and/or board are contemplating an acquisition. Situational hierarchy, in this case, makes absolute sense.

To defeat the arc, therefore, we need not only situational hierarchy but a combination of open leadership, collaboration, and a networked organizational structure.

I’ll continue this line of thinking in my next mental meandering.

3 Replies to “Hierarchy starts with a ‘Higher Arc & Key’”

  1. Dan,

    There’s quite a bit of evidence to support your view when you look at how different types of networks actually “work.”

    First off, there’s an MIT professor named Peter Gloor (@pgloor) who has some spectacular network analyses based on charting email traffic in organizations, and he’s started to look at broader networks and their use of Twitter.

    A couple of his findings:

    * The more trusting you are, the more central you are in a network. Also, the less you talk (within a network/community), the more they are looked at (if you are known to be trusting).

    * The more people share knowledge (offloading info through wikis, blogs, etc), the more productive they are.

    I’ve seen several studies by some of his partners and students presented at the COINs 2010 conference last year at Savannah College of Art and Design (tweetstream here: http://wthashtag.com/transcript.php?page_id=19407&start_date=2010-10-05&end_date=2010-10-10&export_type=HTML)

    A few more ideas, demonstrated through the research on this, that might fuel your next mental meandering…

    * Teams with highly centralized structure best deal with complex tasks based previous studies using populations without common histories (Danowski, University of Chicago)

    * People with radial network structures tend to have more abstract concepts and, thus, perceive things that aren’t there, though they are also more likely to be non-linear thinkers.

    * On Twitter, it’s been demonstrated that people with interlocking networks use more narcissistic language than ppl in radial networks.

    What these three points indicate to me is that identifying similar conversations outside of a formal information structure might be helpful to leaders in identifying new topics that require curricula.

    BTW – I LOVE the visual and the metaphor. This gives me something else to noodle on. Great post, Dan.

  2. Dan,

    Personally I have a love-hate relationship with hierarchy. It probably has roots in the hierarchy in our primary system and the values that embed them there. When I was a kid, my dad was the undisputed “head of the house”, but I don’t think my kids even think there needs to be a head of the house at all. When they grow up they will engage with “authority figures” and systems in a different way than I have in my life.

    At a cognitive level most of us agree that the dysfunctional aspects of hierarchy need to be rethought and replaced with something. However at an emotional level, making that shift is going to be very painful

    by the way, loved the visual!

  3. Hey @Aaron and @Guatam, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say ‘thanks’ for your comments. Truly appreciated.

    I agree that I too have a love-hate relationship with Hierarchy. My kids are growing up knowing we’re all equal. And @Aaron, thanks for the Prof Gloor heads up too.

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