Loose Hierarchies, Strong Networks

When I wrote that the only knowledge that can be managed is our own, I wanted to highlight that command & control methods do not work well in this network era that is replacing the industrial/information era. In our increasingly complex work environments, we should take the advice of Snowden & Kurtz and the Cynefin framework, described as “loose hierarchies & strong networks” by Verna Allee.
cynefin networks verna allee

While a certain amount of hierarchy may be necessary to get work done, networks naturally route around hierarchy. Networks enable work to be done cooperatively, especially when that work is complex and there are no simple answers, best practices, or case studies to fall back on. Real business value today is in complex and creative work.

Just imagine if the idea that the only knowledge we can manage is our own informed our organizations and our approach to learning and development?

What would education look like? Perhaps like this school in Bat-Yam where children direct their own learning and involve the entire community to help them achieve their personal learning goals (YouTube video). Loose hierarchies, strong networks.

What would training look like? Perhaps workers would be asked how they learn best and then be supported by the organization to get their work done. Maybe one-hour of compliance training on the LMS would disappear. Loose hierarchies, strong networks.

What would knowledge management look like? Perhaps every worker would be encouraged and supported to develop a personal knowledge mastery system not tied to enterprise software. Each person would have knowledge artefacts that could be connected to the enterprise but not uniquely owned by it. The organization would support the development of PKM skills. Loose hierarchies, strong networks.

What would your organization look like with looser hierarchies and stronger networks? Probably a lot more human.

8 Responses to “Loose Hierarchies, Strong Networks”

  1. Dan Pontefract

    Ya, I did like Donald’s piece.
    What I was getting at, however, is if Maria was around, and she saw another opportunity, perhaps it would be to bring Montessori-esque thinking to the workplace.
    It’s, in essence, what you are describing above.

  2. Bob Allen (@CuriousAgilist)

    Valve ( http://blogs.valvesoftware.com/abrash/valve-how-i-got-here-what-its-like-and-what-im-doing-2/ ), a game development company, may qualify as an extreme example of “Loose Hierarchies, Strong Networks”, especially the networks part.

    “Valve has no formal management or hierarchy at all.

    Don’t mistake this for anarchy. People commit to projects and choose “leads” by informal consensus. It reminds me a bit of the Finnish education system ( http://www.forbes.com/sites/erikkain/2011/05/02/the-finland-phenomenon-inside-the-worlds-most-surprising-school-system/ ), where trust and team efforts have replaced more traditional teacher-student relationships.”

  3. Jon Mason

    This resonates with me — to a point. I think the ideal would be better described as flexible hierarchies & active networks. I prefer to think of the “sweet spot” where organizational hierarchies & networks intersect. The problem with being “loose” is that responsibility & accountability can get lost. And what are the metrics that determine a “strong” network? Number of members? One power of a network is its ability to propagate …. & to connect, even with weak links.

    • Harold Jarche

      “what are the metrics that determine a “strong” network” you ask, Jon.

      Organizational Network Analysis (ONA) gives us the tools to determine this. From Patti Anklam‘s book, Net Work, some questions to start looking at value are:

      Does the network have adequate resources to create value, both tangible & intangible?
      Are there performance metrics for tangible value produced?
      Is the network’s value-producing model sustainable?
      Are all stakeholders receiving the value they expect, and more?

  4. Jon Mason

    Not sure I agree with the focus on “value”. And I don’t like the descriptor “strong” as it misses the main characteristics about networks. For me, networks can (but don’t necessarily) provide resilience, adaptability, emergent solutions, swift communications, etc … & they can add value. My point about “weak links” in a network is that these are somtimes the links that unexpectedly come to the foreground of activity. Further — to paraphrase Dave Snowden (“you don’t know what you know until you need to know it”) : the network doesn’t know its value for a specific purposes until it activates it. The kind of questions mentioned above indicate to me that Pam Anklam is describing a group, team, club, guild, or organization — but NOT a network.


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