Hierarchies in perpetual beta

I have said many times that teamwork is overrated. It can be a smoke screen for office bullies to coerce fellow workers. The economic stick often hangs over the team: be a team player or lose your job, is the implication in many workplaces. One of my main concerns with teams is that people are placed on them by those holding hierarchical power and are then told to work together (or else). However, there are usually power plays internal to the team so that being a team player really means doing what the leader says. For example, I know many people who work in call centres and I have heard how their teams are often quite dysfunctional. Teamwork too often just means towing the party line.

teamwork.001One solution to hierarchical teams are self-forming teams. Many of the companies described in the book, Reinventing Organizations, are based on the principle of self-organization where hierarchies are temporary, negotiated structures. Bosses are often voted on by their peers. Self-organizing teams are much more flexible than hierarchical ones, but they require active and engaged members. One cannot cede power to the boss, because everyone is responsible for the boss they chose. Like democracy, self-organized teams are hard work. But they are best to deal with complexity. As I have said before, hierarchies work well when information flows mostly in one direction: down. They are good for command and control. They are handy to get things done in small groups. But hierarchies are rather useless to create, innovate, or change.

Our challenge is not to banish hierarchies, but to balance them with open systems, properly guided,” says Ed Morrison. A network perspective is needed to see how teams and hierarchies should work, according to Eugene Eric Kim.

Networks are not a rejection of hierarchy. Networks are a rejection of rigidity. A hierarchy is an efficient form of decision-making, as long as it’s the “right” hierarchy. Powerful networks allow the right hierarchies to emerge at the right time.

But hierarchies are attractive, so they are not likely to go away soon, according to Professor Jeffery Pfeffer.

“There’s this belief that we are all living in some postmodernist, egalitarian, merit-based paradise and that everything is different in companies now,” he says. “But in reality, it’s not.” In fact, in a new paper that explores the notion that power structures haven’t changed much over time, Pfeffer explains that the way organizations operate today actually reflects hundreds of years of hierarchical power structures, and remains unchanged because these structures “can be linked to survival advantages” in the workplace. The beliefs and behaviors that go along with them, he writes, are ingrained in our collective, corporate DNA.

Pfeffer says that “relationships with bosses still matter for people’s job tenure and opportunities, as do networking skills.” The job (salaried employment) is the key factor that will change the nature of work teams. As long as people have jobs, we will have hierarchical teams. The job is premised on the assumption that people can fit into existing teams like cogs in a machine and that team members can be easily replaced.

We already have other ways of organizing work. Orchestras are not teams; neither are jazz ensembles. There may be teamwork on a theatre production but the cast is not a team. It is more like a social network. Hierarchical teams are what we get when we use the blunt stick of economic consequences as the prime motivator. In a complex and creative economy, the unity of hierarchical teams can be counter-productive, as it shuts off opportunities for serendipity and potential innovation.

We are moving into a post-job economy, something that business school professors seem to be ignoring. Work will become much more complex and multifaceted than a simplistic model of Homo Economicus can address. Those of us who do not have jobs are already working in self-organized teams. Look to the edge cases to see the future. Hierarchies will become temporary arrangements to get things done. The future will be hierarchies in perpetual Beta.


My 20 most popular posts in 2014

Here is a list of my 20 most popular posts in 2014 (as at 21 December) according to comments, and social shares (on Twitter, Facebook, LInkedIn etc). Thanks to everyone who commented or shared. Happy Christmas to all! Top 100 Tools for Learning 2014 is ready (22 September 2014) Moving beyond e-learning – the new mindset […]

becoming collectively smarter

We are in the midst of a nano-bio-info-techno-cogno revolution. We are entering the network era and change is coming fast, which may sound like a cliché, but consider the last major shift we went through. We had lots of time for our institutions to adapt.

When markets came about, we had a few hundred years to move from the Hanseatic League, adopt double-entry bookkeeping, and progress to high frequency trading. We also were able to develop education systems, from one-room schoolhouses, to public universities, and later business schools to fuel the new corporations. Today, we are seriously lagging behind in learning how to deal with the scientific advances of the network era. We do not have the time afforded to us during the last shift to a market society. We have to jump from following state-established curriculum to creating our own learning networks: in this generation. People need to learn and work in networks, shifting their hierarchical position from teacher to learner, or from manager to contributor. They need to not only take control of their professional development but find others who can help them. It is becoming obvious in many fields that we are only as good as our knowledge networks. We have to become collectively smarter.

Personal Knowledge Management/Mastery is but one way to address the need to keep up with the scientific revolutions around us. I have worked on this framework for the past decade. It is designed to be appropriated and used in a different way for each person. But like e-learning and knowledge management, PKM is at risk of becoming a technology to buy and consume. Software vendors are turning PKM into a commodity, as well as other sense-making frameworks like personal learning networks (PLN). Society, and the workforce, cannot afford this. Consider the number of unemployed PhD holders today, educated for the last economy but adrift in this one. We need to take control of our learning, as neither the established institutions nor the markets will help us. Networks are the only answer, but we have to build them. PKM is not the only solution, but let’s not relegate it a box of code before even testing it out at scale.

PKM is only a technology in the sense that Harold Stolovitch defines it, “Technology is the application of organized and scientific knowledge to solve practical problems.” If anyone is selling you a PKM system, they do not understand it. Walk away before you waste your money. The only technology for enabling PKM is the Internet, and particularly the Web, as long as it remains open. People don’t need anything else, other than getting rid of barriers that impede their learning. Internal barriers include social media policies, firewalls, inefficient work practices, defining people by their job, and many others, too numerous to name. Usually the barriers stem from the organizational structure or from management.

PKM is not productivity improvement, though that may be an emergent result of the discipline. It is not collecting things and filing them away, no matter how fancy it looks on some software platform. PKM is creating a sense-making process that works for you, and that you regularly use. PKM is beyond the workplace, just as workers are not always at work, but are always learning.

For me, it’s using writing, particularly here on my blog, to make sense of concepts, theories, experiences, and opinions related to my professional life. Sometimes my non-professional life gets involved, and that’s just fine with me. For you, it’s probably something else, and that is the wonderful thing: there is no single PKM system for all. People practising PKM, in their own ways, add to the diversity of thinking in organizations and society. A single system would kill diverse thinking, which in turn would destroy any potential for change or innovation.

PKM builds reflection into our learning and working, helping us adapt to change and new situations. It can also help develop critical thinking skills. The discipline of PKM helps each person become a contributing node in a knowledge network. It is the foundation for social learning, which will help us develop new network era infrastructures to replace outdated institutions and markets. It does not matter what it is called, but seeking knowledge networks, active sense-making, and sharing publicly, are practices that need to be widespread. Our collective future depends on it.

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