“What is it about the ‘organization’ of the Internet that has allowed it to thrive despite its massive size and lack of hierarchy?
The work of identifying which relationships and connections to build and grow and maintain is dispersed to the nodes themselves — and they’re the ones who know which ones to focus on. That’s why the Internet can be so massive, and get infinitely larger, without falling apart. No one is in control; no one needs to hold it together. It’s a model of complexity. And, like nature, like an ecosystem, it is much more resilient than a complicated system, more effective, and boundary-less. And, like nature, that resilience and effectiveness comes at a price — it is less ‘efficient’ than a complicated system, full of redundancy and evolution and failure and learning. But that’s exactly why it works. “—Dave Pollard: What if Everything Ran Like the Internet?
While a certain amount of hierarchy may be necessary to get specific project work done, networks function best when each node can choose with whom and when it connects. Hierarchies should be seen as temporary, negotiated agreements to get work done, not immutable power structures. Networks enable work to be done more effectively when that work is complex and there are no simple answers, best practices, or case studies to fall back on.
Thinking like a node in a network and not as a position in a hierarchy is the first mental shift required to move to a connected enterprise. The old traits of the industrial/information worker may have been intellect and diligence but networks need people who are creative and take initiative. People cannot be creative on demand. Nurturing creativity becomes a primary management responsibility.
The Internet has finally given us a glimpse of the power of networks. We are just beginning to realize how we can use networks as our primary organizational form for living and working. A connected enterprise has to be based on looser hierarchies and stronger networks.
In networks, even established practices like teamwork can be counter-productive. Teams promote unity of purpose. Sports metaphors are often used in teamwork, but in sports there is only one coach and everybody has a specific job to do within tight constraints. In today’s workplace, there’s more than one ball and the coach cannot see the entire field. The team, as a work vehicle, is outdated. In a complex world, team unity may be efficient, but not very effective.
Exception-handling also becomes more important in the connected enterprise. Automated systems can handle the routine stuff while people working together deal with the exceptions. As these exceptions get addressed, some or all of the solutions can get automated, and so the process evolves. Complexity increases the need for both collaboration (working together on a problem) and cooperation (sharing without any specific objective). Networks enable rapid shifts in the composition of work groups, without any formal reorganization. Networked colleagues, learning together, can close the gap between knowing and doing.
“Many conventional thought leaders conceive of the current global crisis in terms of closing a knowledge gap: if only we could close the knowledge gap (on how to address the current challenges), we would be able to take appropriate action. But true change making practitioners often express the other view: the real gap today is not a knowledge gap, it’s a gap between knowing and doing. That is, the real problem is a collective capacity gap of sensing and shaping the emerging future at the scale of the whole system. If that is so, how can we create new spaces that allow people to co-sense, lean into, and co-shape the emerging future?” —Otto Sharmer: Fire from Within
The hierarchy is a construct that help people deal with the otherwise overwhelming complexity of the network of interactions. A formalized static hierarchy has been a help in the past, or at least a comfort, but more and more a hindrance to agile enterprises today.
I agree that “Hierarchies should be seen as temporary, negotiated agreements to get work done, not immutable power structures.”
It is worth reflecting on the idea that a single hierarchy implies an omniscient viewpoint. Why only one? Isn’t there really a multiplicity of hierarchies all intermingled at the same time? Isn’t also possible the relevant hierarchy depends upon your viewpoint and purpose? Taken further, it might be that every individual sees a different hierarchy to the network around them. Allowing nodes to chose their relationships gets close to this. Getting to a true understanding of a network organization will require exploring these kinds of ideas.
In any case, a hierarchy is merely a construct to tell a story. As our stories go quicker, so should hierarchies.
“Allowing nodes to chose their relationships gets close to this. Getting to a true understanding of a network organization will require exploring these kinds of ideas.
In any case, a hierarchy is merely a construct to tell a story. As our stories go quicker, so should hierarchies.”
Exactly … temporary, situation-based, negotiated, based on who knows what, what needs to get done, etc. with some semi-stable but movable anchor points.
There are points of interaction on the behalf of an organizations and its customers where perceived accountability needs to be situated (senior people nominally accountable), but that’s kinda like an organizational lightning rod in interconnected and constantly turbulent conditions. I’m not sure that metaphor works completely, still thinking about it.
Thanks for a thought provoking piece, Harold. There are some “hierarchies” that will always be there, however. On the internet, countries and the access limitations they impose still exist. Security and intellectual property protections mediate the open connections, too. In the workplace, the manager structure is used to create accountability for assignments and performance feedback. While we do need to step out of our old way of organizing information and action, the “structure-less” properties will always be anchored with some “support” structure, and hopefully that structure is designed to help not hinder network freedom.