From HBR Blogs: John Kotter on Hierarchy and Network

The hierarchical organization that we see today was invented in the last century, and it is an incredible invention. It can direct and coordinate the actions of thousands of people making and selling thousands of products or services across thousands of miles, and do so effectively, efficiently, and profitably, week after week after week. If you had told an average citizen in the year 1900 what this structure and those sets of processes were accomplishing everywhere today, they would have thought you daft.

But 20th-century, capital “H” Hierarchy (a sort of hardware) and the managerial processes that run on it (a sort of software) do not handle transformation well. And in a world with an ever-increasing rate of change, it is impossible to thrive without timely transformations. The data, case studies, and personal anecdotes to this effect abound

I’ve written about the history of the hierarchical-organising model and organisational chart the before. Wikipedia has a brief overview of the historical development of management. This is important background for the social business design conversation.

Hat tip to Samuel.


Google Ngram Viewer


Similar to Google’s timeline search feature, the Books Ngram Viewer allows you to compare trends based on text in a selection of scanned books. The ‘about‘ page explains the different Corpora you can search. Interesting and probably addictive.

“Mostly Harmless” – Wikipedia’s first 10,000 edits (from Boing Boing)

Joseph Reagle, author of the excellent history of Wikipedia, Good Faith Collaboration (review coming soon) sez, “When I wrote my book on Wikipedia’s culture and history, many sources, such as emails from founders, Nupedia-l archives, and (most sadly) the early days of Wikipedia contributions were lost to bit rot. But thanks to a recent discovery of some old log files by Tim Starling, I’ve been able to roughly reconstruct the first 10,000 edits to Wikipedia (about 6 weeks).”

There is probably some good behaviour data to mine here, for those wanting to kick off their own encyclopaedia-style or knowledgebase wiki to imagine what their first 10,000 edits might look like.

Looking at the entry for Australia I was reminded of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

To wiki is obviously human.

Book Review – Seeing Further: The Story of Science and the Royal Society


This collection of essays, put together by Bill Bryson as editor, to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), really is something to savour.

I must admit that while I already had a positive regard for the RSA, it was the presence of Georgina Ferry in the list of contributors that first caught my attention (she wrote one my of favourite non-fiction books, A Computer Called LEO).

But as it turned out, it was Henry Petroski‘s essay, Images of Progress: Conference of Engineers, that I turned to first. A chapter inspired some what by this painting. And really, from this point I explored the chapters in a random and leisurely fashion.

The twenty-one essays in this book covers science from all angles – the science itself, its relevance to issues we currently face and how scientists themselves are situation in society. If you are like me, you will warm to some chapters immediately but others take a little time to appreciate. I suggest you take you time!

I also suspect that some of the more historical or philosophical based essays will age well, and others – addressing current issues from a contemporary scientific view – will in a decade or so perhaps be less relevant. However, as you read this book you become aware that this very much reflects the nature of the RSA. They a collection of explorers, build on a solid foundation of credibility but they do not have perfect foresight (as Simon Schaffer’s and Richard Holmes’ chapters demonstrate), they are simply always moving forward.

Overall, I found this book very encouraging is the broadest sense. Bill Bryson writes in his introduction:

“The Royal Society has been doing interesting and heroic things since 1660 when it was founded, one damp weeknight in late November, by a dozen men who had gathered in rooms at Gresham College to hear Christopher Wren, 28 years old and not yet generally famous, give a lecture on astronomy.”

I immediately thought of my present day peers, coming together at different BarCamps and similar unconferences to exchange ideas. Perhaps these modern day collaborations have more potential than we imagine? We shouldn’t forget that by modern day standards, many of the RSA’s early history is full of experiments and ideas that sound completely absurd too!

The physical (hardcover) book itself and its visual design has also been put together with great thought. Just the right number of images and photos have been used in each chapter, so that they embellish the experience of reading rather than overwhelming it.

Incidentally, the RSA continues to be a thoroughly progressive and modern global organisation – for example, check out their YouTube. They also have Fellowship chapters around the world, including here in Australia.

What does the history of the railways have to teach us about Enterprise 2.0?


In this other post, Stewart Mader digs out the old McAfee-Davenport debate and concludes:

So Tom’s right — the absence of technology isn’t the only reason that organizations are hierarchical. The people in charge of those organizations organized them that way because it’s what they understood how to do. And Andrew’s right — today’s ubiquitous technologies that we use in all facets of our lives are different from the earlier tools that had a specific place and use.

I thought I would dig a little deeper and take a look at the history of the railways in the US for some insights into the history of these hierarchical structures we take for granted. These course materials from UC San Diego provide an overview of this history and they say:

The earliest railroads used the same simple form of business organization that almost all other businesses used at that time – the unified or entrepreneurial form of organization. This was the traditional owner-controlled facility in which the owner made the day-to-day operational decisions and set long term goals.


In the 1850s Daniel McCallum of the Erie Railroad perfected the operations department (responsible for moving trains and obtaining freight and traffic business) and devised the system of information flows using the telegraph. He was the first to clearly define the duties and responsibilities of the executive and administrative officers on a large railroad and to spell out the lines of authority and communication between the various officers of the road. Part of this scheme was a detailed system of information that flowed upward through the organization using the telegraph.

(Emphasis added)

I think technology has played a role in shaping organisational structure. However, the catalyst for change includes other managerial drivers, such as the need to manage scale (including a literal train wreck) and volumes of transactions, combined with the availability of an appropriate technology.

Considering Gartner is quoted as saying that “as much as 60% of an organization’s processes are unstructured – and probably also unmonitored, unmanaged, unknown and unruly” (hat tip to Sig) it sounds like we still haven’t quite solved that management challenge as perfectly as the org charts might suggest. Enter new social computing technologies that offer the chance to help bridge that last effectiveness gap.

The question is, are you going to wait for your own organisational train wreck before you do something about it?

Book Review: Electronic Brains: Stories from the Dawn of the Computer Age


This book is an expanded version of a four part BBC Radio 4 series of the same name:


which tells the stories of some of the computer pioneers in Britain, America and the Ukraine. Each is a little cameo of social history of the early post war years half a century ago, from a time when “everything you did was new, no-one had ever done it before”.

The radio series only covers some aspect of the early history of computing in the US, UK and what was post-war communist Ukraine. It also includes an episode on an unusual economic simulator that water rather than electronics . However, the book expands on this and manages to also include a chapter about the first digital computer in Australia. This coverage of the history of computing from around the world is probably the most interesting thing about this book, as it gives you an interesting perspective on the process of technology innovation.

I must admit the story from the Ukraine (“So Then we Took The Roof Off”) failed to grab me, but maybe I should go and listen to the original radio version as I suspect some of the impact of that story might have been lost in translation to the written word. However, the key message of that story was that the invention of the computer wasn’t something based on a sudden flash of inspiration – instead, it was the natural evolution of technology that created the potential for it to happen. In other words someone, somewhere was going to invent the computer at that point in human history.

Of course the commercialisation and mass popularisation of that technology is another story all together, which is touched on in the final chapter with the story of IBM (“It’s Not About Being First”).

Overall, I enjoyed this book but was also a little disappointed because there is only so much you can fit into a single chapter about each of the periods covered. Perhaps I would have enjoyed it more if I had listened to the radio show first, as the book claims to also expand further on the stories in those original broadcast rather than simply being a transcript. On the plus side, it was good to learn something new about the history of computing in places outside of the US and UK.

If you like the idea of this book, I also suggest you have a look at A Computer called LEO (the story of Britain’s first business computer – reviewed over on my old blog) and also The Electric Universe (which places computing in the context of the history of electricity).