Networks, Hierarchies and Intellectual Laziness

The problem with most people who utter profound inanities about “networks versus hierarchies” is that they have almost no understanding of either. So they turn organizational designs into moral values. But they’re not. They’re structures that enable communication, management, and operational execution. To conflate values with organizational design is sheer intellectual laziness

I agree entirely with the sentiment, with a few caveats:

  • Don’t confuse the messenger (with their moral arguments) with the actual change agent; and
  • Its not a choice between network or hierarchy – the network is already there.

It is also important to consider technology in the equation, as it shapes what is possible in terms of organisational design.

Perhaps a better way of thinking about ‘simpler’ organisations is to think in terms of lean management, rather than assuming we are always trying to flatten as the primary objective. We are simply trying to remove bottlenecks in business processes, using simple human-centred processes that ignore the now increasingly artificial constraints of hierarchical-based information systems.

In doing so we do recognise that organisations are complex. And as systems thinking taught me, we need to be open to new perspectives. So I’m not going to shoot the messengers just yet.

Russell L. Ackoff: 1919 -2009

Professor Russell L. Ackoff has been described as a Renaissance Man, architect, city planner, philosopher, behavioral scientist, trailblazer in the field of organizational operations, the pre-eminent authority on organizational systems theory, best-selling author, world traveler—even a humorist.  Recognized internationally as a pragmatic academic, Russ, as he was known to all, devoted most of his professional life to “dissolving” complex societal and organizational problems by engaging all stakeholders in designing solutions.

So much for the real-time Web. I have only just heard today that influential system thinker, Russ Ackoff, passed away on the 29th October.

If you haven’t heard of Ackoff, his Wikipedia entry is a great starting point. Right now I am reading his 1967 paper on Management Misinformation Systems (PDF). Absolutely brilliant!