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.

Some notes on Architected for Collaboration

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to participate in BarCampCanberra 2011. Off the back of many varied discussions from our Social Business Summit series, I thought this would be a good chance to engage with a diverse audience about workforce collaboration. In particular, I wanted to create a link between organisations and how we organise information. The following are some notes about my thoughts behind this presentation.

Cross posted from the Headshift Australia blog, I’ve written up some notes about my BarCampCanberra 2011 presentation on enterprise social software. Would love to hear your comments here or over on the Headshift blog.

And don’t forget, if you are interested in this kind of thing and work for a large organisation based in the Asia Pacific you should also register your interest in the regional 2.0 Adoption Council.

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?