From hierarchies to wirearchies

Work in the network era needs to be both cooperative and collaborative, meaning that organizations have to support both types of activities. This may not be an easy transition for companies based almost uniquely on command and control leadership. But in this emerging network era, cooperative innovation trumps collaborative innovation, writes Stowe Boyd.

My experience is that communities of practice can help make the transition from hierarchies to networks, or as Jon Husband describes the resulting structure; wirearchy. Communities of practice, both internal and external; can be safe places between highly focused work and potentially chaotic social networking. The Community Roundtable has a Community Maturity Model that describes this transition, in four stages. The model makes it relatively easy to see where your organization stands and where it should go.

Community Maturity Model

The CMM aligns with my own way of looking at the need to balance structured work and the sharing of complex knowledge, with the concurrent requirement for unstructured social networking which can increase innovation through a diversity of ideas. I have added in the four CMM stages to the image below. Communities of practice can link collaboration and cooperation, and help weave the organization and its people into a wirearchy.

Wirearchy – “a dynamic two-way flow of power and authority based on knowledge, trust, credibility and a focus on results, enabled by interconnected people and technology.” – Jon Husband


Getting there may not be easy, but the evidence is showing that it is necessary. For example, here is how Yammer builds its products, according to Kris Gale, VP of Engineering:

Yammer’s biggest rule of thumb is 2 to 10 people, 2 to 10 weeks – which means they generally don’t do projects that are larger or more complicated.  There is a non-linear relationship between the complexity of a project and the wrap-up integration phase at the end.  If you go anywhere beyond ten weeks, the percentage of time in the wrap-up phase becomes disproportionate. – First Round Capital

This sounds like it’s aligned with the general rules of dealing with complexity, developed by Dave Snowden. Each project at Yammer is a probe. It’s also small enough so that the potential ROI does not drive the company off the rails. A small project failure is much easier to deal with than a large one. Yammer understands that working in a hyper-connected economy makes complex work less predictable, so project cycles are kept short. As Gale goes on to explain:

I don’t think you should be building a product.  I think you should be building an organization that builds a product.

Be very wary of only trusting managers with engineering decisions; in fact, you should delegate these all the way down to individual contributors.  If managers are the only ones making decisions as you grow past thirty to forty people, this should be a red flag.  – First Round Capital

probe sense respond

Becoming a wirearchy requires new organizational structures that incorporate communities and networks. In addition, they require new ways of doing work, like thinking in terms of perpetual Beta and doing manageable probes to test complex problems. It’s a new way of doing work, within a new work structure. Both are required.

25 Responses to “From hierarchies to wirearchies”

  1. Joachim Stroh

    Indeed, we are getting closer by the day, Harold. I’ve been thinking in many ways we’ve already established wirearchies, it may just not be very visible or evenly distributed at this point. What I’ve been muddling over for a while is what comes next? Is there another “phase” we’ll go through in the next 5-10 years? I think there is. Here’s my preview (feel free to interpret): the hierarchy will still exist, but it will take on a different shape, one that we may not fully understand or appreciate yet (for example, the vertical dimension might become meaningless). One thing for sure, the organizational transformation is happening (at an increasingly faster rate) and something new will come out of it. Here’s my take:

  2. Jon Husband

    I’ve been thinking in many ways we’ve already established wirearchies, it may just not be very visible or evenly distributed at this point. What I’ve been muddling over for a while is what comes next? Is there another “phase” we’ll go through in the next 5-10 years?

    Yes, I think so too, Joachim. What hasn’t changed and needs to change is the leadership & management philosophy (its underpinnings) and the various methods it employes to manage the structure it embodies. All that is increasingly obsolete, as it is used to define, design and manage people whilst they are working at contributing and creating value (a service, a good, some needed component or participative conduit of an human ecosystem. In my opinion that’s what is yet to change .. whilst people are already connecting and collaborating and cooperating and co-creating.

  3. Ian

    I very much like this categorization of the different ways of interacting and the progression that has happened over time away from command and control to collaboration and then to cooperation. The only challenge I have here is that there seems to be an implication that the ultimate goal in working together is the network and that community is but a stepping stone along the way. For me I think that each of the models, even including command and control has its place and its uses and the exciting thing is more that networks give us a new alternative that can help us address problems which other methods cannot rather than it being the ultimate solution that fits everything.

    In my work at the UN one of the big challenges we have is one of “coordination” of different organizations working in a country who have overlapping but not identical goals but who also have different ways of working. Although individuals within the organizations can work together either as community or network it’s challenging to think about what model can be use to ensure that institutions work well together in a way which is not command and control – but needs to be more structured than a network too.

    • Harold Jarche

      The title of my image is “Hierarchies + Communities + Networks = Wirearchies”. It includes all three. I am not saying we need to get rid of hierarchies, just understand that their usefulness is limited when dealing with complexity. I cannot speak for the Community Roundtable though.

  4. Jon Husband

    I am not saying we need to get rid of hierarchies, just understand that their usefulness is limited when dealing with complexity.

    I agree completely with this, and I suspect Harold will vouch for me that I have said this or similar, basically, since the beginning of the awareness that traditional hierarchy and its dynamics would not be sufficient, not adequate for the long and complex game, regarding the swirling and growing complexity in front of us. The conditions are new.

  5. Henry Singer

    While I agree in principle with the stages laid out in the CMM, I would like to understand if and how the two models (hierarchical command and control vs networked and collaborative) can coexist successfully. In particular, if the top of the structure remains hierarchical, but a bottoms-up network structure begins to emerge, then can a functional and stable hybrid model exist? Or, is this scenario inherently unstable and not sustainable?

  6. Jon Husband

    What an excellent .. clear and practical .. post Stephen Mugford wrote. Yours and his analyses and descriptions of practical possibilities will help much to move things along in constructive ways.

  7. Valdis Krebs

    Hierarchies are just another type of network — mathematicians call them “trees”. Trees are simple networks, without cycles (closed triangles). One can look at an organization as consisting of “prescribed” wiring (hierarchy, matrix org., etc.) and “emergent” wiring (communities of practice/interest, mentoring, advice/KOL/SME networks, etc.).

    Here is a diagram of an actual organization, showing both hierarchy and emergent work flow together…

    • Harold Jarche

      Excellent point, Valdis. Hierarchies are just networks that constrain the flow of knowledge. We don’t need to get rid of hierarchies, just open them up, or improve the wiring, as you suggest 🙂

  8. Jon Husband

    Your comment was a bit too short. Please go back and try again.

    I wanted to say …

    Upgrade 2.0

  9. Jon Husband

    I don’t mind, and wasn’t chastising you.

    I just pasted that message in toi the comment so as to make it long enough 😉

  10. Ara Ohanian

    It seems the move towards wirearchy is inevitable for organizations which want to thrive. My question is: how does the culture of an organization change to support this? Jon Husband says leadership management and philosophy need to change, could you share explicit thoughts on how exactly they should change?

  11. Esko Kilpi

    We are living in a world that is built on the centrality of information and radically distributed intelligence. As a result, it may not be helpful to see the organization as a given entity or structure at all, but as an ongoing process of organizing. The accumulating failures of attempts at organizational resilience can be traced to the fundamental but mistaken assumption that organizations are vertical or horizontal arrangements, that guide and, as a consequence, limit interaction.

    More on this:

    • Harold Jarche

      Thanks, Nancy, and thanks for the link. I attended a defence/industry conference this week, and many folks talked about three horizons, though not using Waddel’s specific framework, so it has permeated the mainstream. Rest well 🙂

  12. Jon Husband

    As a result, it may not be helpful to see the organization as a given entity or structure at all, but as an ongoing process of organizing.

    I think this is fundamentally right, but/and I also think it will take a long time for organizations to become “continuously fluid”.

    That said, I noted long ago as a consultant whose work with clients addressed / affected the boxes on the org chart, that changes to structure happened pretty often / regularly. So there was ongoing, rolling change in effect .. but the clients always assumed that the most recent, or next, decision would result in more-or-less the “right” structure.

    The basic assumption operating then (and I think still semi-consciously at play today) was that there was a threshold degree of ‘stability’ that was just around the corner.

    • Harold Jarche

      As you note, the idea that there’s a threshold degree of ‘stability’ just around the corner, is a tough assumption to break, Jon. That’s why I keep repeating that we have to adapt to life in perpetual Beta. I see two major barriers to this. Few people really understand complexity and few think in terms of networks. Both of these mental frameworks are necessary to move into a continuously fluid organizational construct. Practices like personal knowledge management can help, but it really takes new, shared mental models, as Peter Senge explained twenty years ago in The Fifth Discipline.

  13. Jon Husband

    I’d say just a simple “yes” in response to your last comment, but your guard dog of a blog would tell me that my comment was too short .. so “yes”.


  14. Stephen Mugford

    “That’s why I keep repeating that we have to adapt to life in perpetual Beta.”

    Agreed, Harold. There seem to be a variety of ‘defences’ against admitting this.

    Individually this seems to relate to personality dimensions. Carol Dweck has done interesting work on growth mind sets vs. fixed ones, showing that they have very different consequences of adapting to change; Bob Kegan at Harvard has written over the years about the stages of cognitive development and Immunity to Change; and Roger Martin has made a complementary point in his book The Opposable Mind. I’m still not sure how to weave all this together completely, but it seems clear that living life in beta is really disturbing for some people.

    Collectively, there is a similar thing going on. Some systems are adaptive and flexible, others rigid and brittle. Most organisations champion slogans like ‘agile, adaptable and capable’, but few really manage it, largely due to things others have commented on above. 🙂


Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)