Belgian royal conservatory's dome, interior with sun. (c) E. Forrest Christian

Hierarchy versus Emergence in Organizations

E. Forrest Christian Organizations 5 Comments

Hierarchies are emergent phenomena.

One of the things that has bothered me with the several “postmodern” discussions about organizational life has been the disregard for hierarchies often expressed by them. Flat oranizations are superior to hierarchical ones, they say, because inforrmation and knowledge flows more freely between equals. I agree that information and knowledge flows better between equals but I do not believe that this makes flat organizations a good idea.

A truly flat organization would not have a CEO. A flat organization is an “association” in Jaques’s terminology. When businesses decide that they do not need a single leader (CEO or Chairman) but are run by democratic vote, they will be Flat Organizations. Perhaps companies that are employee-owned can be flat. I doubt it, having worked in an employee owned firm. I preferred working in the Owner-owned firm that had open accounting.

I believe that hierarchies form spontaneously. Hierarchy is nothing more than an evolutionary development. The question is whether something else should supplant it.

This is not necessarily an argument for bureaucracies. However, we should note that they did not suddenly appear in 1890 in the German states. Bureaucracies had been deployed by the Romans and the Macedonians, the Persians and the Babylonians, created by the Chinese, the Indians, the Middle East and the Native American peoples (who may have invented it multiple times).

Why in “traditional” societies are there matriarches and/or patriarchs? What does having a stratified society with old people at the top get them? Certainly from a survival of the fittest, one could argue that the younger people were better fit. Besides, these people had already lived out their biological usefulness, having passed the time of passing on their genes when they turned forty. Perhaps people never lived long, but they lived longer as hunter-gatherers than they did as farmers. Agriculture actually reduces the lifespan. As did industrialization.

So why did people band together in agricultural communities? Even if Jane Jacobs is right (that stationary societies grew up around mineral resources, not farming, which then allowed them room to think about agriculture), that doesn’t explain why humans would want to live in an agricultural community when they were actually better off before. Why make the change? Why do English peasants move to industrial centers during the industrial revolution when their life expectancy dropped from almost 50 to 35? What explains this? For that matter, why would all these poor peasants in central America move to these cesspool slums? Why not stay out on the farm?

What is the driving need to civilize, to come together?

Emergence helps explain why we want to sit together. We need to be together in order to have these experiences, sit with enough people for a long enough time. Is it sensical to expect people to move to the city so that they can have a more stable life if that life means that they will die in three years rather than thirty? Sure, if there is something about being together, about what can happen.

Does warfare alone explain it? We band together because others have banded together. We create standing armies because it is more effective in defending ourselves against aggressors, and thereby become an aggressor ourselves. But the armies themselves become stratified quickly. Leaders emerge. If they want to run more people, they find leaders beneath them.

See hierarchy form: find a group of random people and give them a task to accomplish. The group will create its own hierarchy based on what it values and knows. Think of pecking orders that are created.

Is hierarchy, something that has evolved over ten thousand years, something that can be tossed over night? Surely that smacks of High Modernist hubris.

Perhaps societies are evolving towards associations instead of hierarchy, that association is the future. If so, then America has already been there: our associative nature, arising from Protestant mores and norms, hit a peak last century. We were a nation of associations. Will we be once more?

Does increased information speed make us more associative or less? Can information replace the dynamic social environments that housed our complex social negotiations in the past? Are there complex social negotiations between individuals any longer? Perhaps George Herbert Mead’s ideas of social construction have run their course. But don’t they sound a lot like Complexity Theory today? “In particular, Mead’s theory of the emergence of mind and self out of the social process of significant communication has become the foundation of the symbolic interactionist school of sociology and social psychology.”

I think that hierarchies exist for a reason. Tossing them simply lets them go underground. Perhaps the problem is not that hierarchies are “bad” or “old-school” so much as we need to use hierarchies where they are appropriate and use aggressive associativeness in others.

Image Credit: Belgian royal conservatory’s dome, interior with sun. © E. Forrest Christian

About the Author

Forrest Christian

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E. Forrest Christian is a consultant, coach, author, trainer and speaker at The Manasclerk Company who helps managers and experts find insight and solutions to what seem like insolvable problems. Cited for his "unique ability and insight" by his clients, Forrest has worked with people from almost every background, from artists to programmers to executives to global consultants. Forrest lives and works plain view of North Carolina's Mount Baker.  [contact]

Comments 5

  1. My son is in preschool, and he already volunteers that “John” is the smartest in the class.

    Humans naturally align themselves. They see some people as consistently having enlightening things to say, and they see others as not generally adding value to their thinking.

    For lack of a better framework, we tend to think the people who dazzle us have a lot of KNOWLEDGE or EXPERIENCE. This is many times true, but it is not the key here.

    It is the ability to integrate, apply, and organize that knowledge and experience that draws us to some and not others. This, of course, is what Jaques calls CIP. Those who can do this in a manner that is more complex than we are capable of are fascinating to us. (And in the working world, we would generally be happy to have them as a manager.)

    Think about your college professors. They all tend to be experts in their fields filled with knowledge and experience. Would you give me the supposition that most have more knowledge and experience than you in their area? So why do you actually LEARN from some, while with others, you feel like, after reading the textbook, you could teach them a thing or two?

    Another example, you might find someone who has memorized the Bible from one end to the other. So, from a knowledge standpoint, they would be pretty well endowed. However, if they cannot integrate the information and organize it to speak about it in a complex manner, they still don’t feel as if they have much substance. They can quote scripture (KNOWLEDGE), but they aren’t processing the information in a way that is interesting (CIP).

    This is why it makes sense for organized work to get done in hierarchies. The problem is recruiting and screening processes value knowledge, experience, and education without the benefit of the CIP component. Hence, many end up with a manager who, indeed, has more knowledge and/or education or experience, than they do, but s/he is not someone who adds value to their thinking. Working for this person, especially having your performance reviewed by this person, is painful.

    In First, Break All the Rules, (Buckingham & Coffman, 1999) they state that the number one determinant of the length of your tenure at a company is the quality of your relationship with your manager. If companies could just grasp the ramifications CIP has on that relationship, work would be VERY different.



  2. Post

    You know, I loved FIRST BREAK ALL THE RULES: WHAT GREAT MANAGERS REALLY DO. It seemed to provide the data to support commonsense notions:

    – Don’t treat everybody equally: treat everyone with dignity, which means treating each as an individual

    – Mediocrity is easily obtained.

    – Successful and Abysmal Failure managers look a lot alike, the difference in what they do being subtle

    – Great managers are emotionally involved with their subordinates. They are not standing in a glass office, watching from afar but living with them in so many ways. Maybe to be CEO you need to never go out to lunch with your peers, but you can take your subordinates.

    I wonder if college professors that are way out of our league are hard to learn from?

  3. I think we disagree on what exactly constitues a flat organization. It’s not a group of peers. It’s an organization that gets the decision maker as close to where the rubber meets the road as possible.

    I have a customer that I’ll call “really big.” They are run so much like the Army that I’ll assume they buy into all this RO stuff at some level. The intrinsic problem with their organization is two-fold: 1. It is possible that a manager can make a career by not making any decisions. No decisions = no scrutiny = 40 years and retire. 2. Multiple chains of command. Senior staff (hr, quality, engineering, etc.) managers have a secondary chain of command into the plants and this hinders the effectiveness of the operations chain of command.

    These two problems are endemic of every really large customer (really large = $2Billion in sales or larger) I’ve ever worked with. They would benefit greatly by whacking out the secondary chains of command (supported by Jaques) and by flatening their organization (not supported by Jaques?). Again, flatening = removing needless, spineless, careerist, managers and inserting fewer folks who will make a decision.

  4. By the way, hierarchies are emergent. Hierarchies that conduct themselves to accomplish goals in a moral well organized way are not.

  5. Post

    I look at a flat organization like much of my industry does: a CEO, some managers beneath him, and then everyone else. This normally doesn’ work, or the staff will create their own hierarchies. Programming staff are relentless at creating hierarchies while espousing flat organizations. The hierarchy that emerges doesn’t work well: in this I think we are in agreement.

    However, I do believe that hierarchy is a natural development of man’s endowed social nature. We are political and social animals from the start, and hierarchies seem to have developed from the get-go, apparently off the original parents-children (nuclear family) from hunter-gatherers. If you think about it, it makes sense: you have the older members who are running things and in a general sense they should be the ones who have the greatest “capability” in RO terms.

    Sending decisions down works as long as you are expecting the individual to make decisions that are within his or her capability. Often, these flat organizations ask folks to make decisions that they can’t understand and paralyzes them. Of course, Cmdr. Abrashoff got a lot of mileage out of telling the crew of his Navy ship that they only needed permission to tell a customer “No”.

Tell Forrest how wrong he is: