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Five great things about hierarchies

https://commons.wikimeTabulating Machine Co. Organization Chart

Five great things about hierarchies

“The network, rather than organisational units, processes or hierarchies, is the main architecture of work.”

Hierarchy has a bad reputation. It hangs out with bureaucracy and is a known associate of that miscreant inflexibility.

I’m here to say that in a digital age we might actually want some of the qualities hierarchies bring after all.

Most of the arguments against hierarchy are ones in favour of networks instead. These two concepts don’t have to be in opposition. In the era of the digital workplace, we can support multiple organisational styles at the same time. After all, a hierarchy is one form of a network, just one that is defined by reporting relationships.

You may have seen those diagrams that show information flowing directly from Person A to Person B in a network, but going all the way up to the top and down again in a hierarchy. They are a fiction. If it were true, the CEO would spend their whole time forwarding emails up and down the hierarchy, because allegedly they are the gatekeeper of everything.

I’m not saying all hierarchies are good. Any management system can be badly implemented. My position instead is that we need both networks and hierarchies, and if you must make a choice good hierarchies beat sparse networks every time. Here’s why:

1. Hierarchies design for collaboration

“Hierarchy is a fundamental organising principle of systems.”

Let’s say you have one team that figures out cutting-edge technical innovations, and one team that figures out how to apply them to products that can be made at scale. It makes sense that these two teams should work closely so there’s a strong flow of knowledge and information between them. You might even call them “Research and Development.”

You might decide that the two team leaders should meet often, and it makes sense for them to have a common manager who has oversight of both sides. More sense than someone managing the innovation team plus the team that runs the payroll. And that’s it, you’re starting to have a hierarchy because it optimises the organisation design to get things done effectively. It puts people who need to work together regularly, closer together in the organisation.

2. Hierarchies specialise roles

Next, let’s imagine you have a team of people all solving customer problems. They are 100 percent dedicated to doing this, really focused on listening and making things happen. Their work is demanding and takes all of their attention. You could insist that they keep breaking off to also plan the shift schedule for the next three months, upgrade to the support system and determine training needs. But it is hard to switch from a focus on urgent customer problems to long-term planning. It makes more sense to have someone else who takes this higher-level view. You might even call them a manager.

3. Promotion is by ability, not popularity

In a pure network, some people gain greater influence through their popularity, just like Instagram or YouTube stars. This might be because they are very knowledgeable, but it could also be because they invest in making connections and self-promotion.

In the workplace, this approach would mean that the popular extrovert rises to the top, even though they may not be as well equipped for the role as the introverted expert. It’s sometimes called a clique or old-boy’s club. You might decide it is better to have clear criteria for who has the greatest influence. You could then be systematic in assessing their ability for this role. You might call that promotion planning or meritocracy.

4. Hierarchies tolerate deviants

People who think or act differently in groups are called deviants. They are willing to say the thing that nobody else wants to articulate. This is risky, as people don’t like the tension it creates and will try to exclude the deviant from the network.

But saying what nobody else will say might just identify a risk that nobody else has seen. Or it can lift teams from complacency and make them more innovative. You might decide these are good qualities, so rather than letting team members self-select, you organise them into a group, top-down.

5. Hierarchies are clearly bounded

Sometimes an organisation needs to act fast. In organic groups people tend to start consultations to build consensus before acting. Sometimes several people try to influence the group in different ways, diluting the impact of its actions. If more people join, there is further delay to also get their buy-in.

You might decide that it is better to define group membership up-front and appoint a spokesperson. That way, when a decision is needed it is clear who has to agree to it, and also when agreement has been reached. You might call that a ‘team’ and the spokesperson a team leader. You might just have started a hierarchy.

People sometimes still object to hierarchies because they feel they create silos. This can be true, but they don’t necessarily do so. And now that you mention it, here’s five great things about silos too.

Sam Marshall

I'm the director of ClearBox Consulting, advising on intranet and digital workplace strategy, SharePoint and online collaboration. I've specialised in intranets and knowledge Management for over 19 years, working with organisations such as Unilever, Astra Zeneca, Akzo Nobel, Sony, Rio Tinto and Diageo. I was responsible for Unilever’s Global Portal Implementation, overseeing the roll-out of over 700 online communities to 90,000 people and consolidating several thousand intranets into a single system.

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