Networks and The Myth of Flattening Organizations

by cv harquail on January 14, 2010

I was excited to hear from a few social media/Enterprise 2.0 advocates after my post last week asking When will social business become social change business? Special thanks to Jon Husband of Wirearchy, who not only confirmed that he has a revolutionary agenda behind his networked models of organizing but who also sent me some of his own work on the subject. I am excited to be finding more colleagues who share the vision of real social change in organizations behind these relationship technology innovations.

As I geared up over the weekend to start blogging about social change and social media, I was preparing to write more about my concern that what proponents of Enterprise 2.0/Social Business are suggesting is not transformational enough. However, we need also to consider that not only are these tools and structures not as revolutionary as they could be — some of these changes aren’t even as revolutionary as we already assume they are.

So I’m backing up a little to look at a different set of assumptions, the assumptions about why internal social media & networks might be revolutionary in the first place.

Take, for example, two very popular myths about the effect of more networked social/production/creation structure social networking inside organizations.

People assume that:

1. Networked work flow, the kind of workflow enhanced by social media within workplaces (e.g., wikis, google wave) will lead to flatter organizations.

2. Flatter organization are better, because flatter organizations reduce power differences between employees. They create more democracy, more autonomy and more decision-making power for employees.

Neither of these assumptions is true. 201001141434.jpg

In this post, I’ll (start to) tackle the myth that networked structures reduce hierarchical levels. The myth that ‘flatter organizations are better’ is the subject of the post following this one.

First, what does it mean to be ‘flatter’?

Simply, to call an organization flatter is to say that it has fewer levels of decision-making authority, power, and control wrapped around the work.

Here’s an example: Instead of having a brand assistant, assistant brand manager, brand supervisor, brand director, category manager, division manager (you see where this is going) we have instead the brand “team”, the brand supervisor, and the category director. That’s going from 6 hierarchical levels to 3.

The idea is that within the team or network there are not only fewer steps to get anything decided or approved, but also that  in your own particular role you have more autonomy over a larger part of the production/creation process. This is a ‘good’ thing, because (most) people like to have some control over what they do.

The big change happens in the arrangements within the ‘team’. These days, these arrangements are made possible by communication technology that allows people to share information more directly, without it being mediated by their boss or someone else’s boss. They also get to contribute information (have input, as it were) without having it be passed up and then down some organizational ladder. So far, so good.

However, the network structure doesn’t permeate the whole organization.

The secret is outside the network.

When organizations adopt networked or team structures, they tuck these networks into existing managerial hierarchies. The basic hierarchical model and mindset remain in overall control.

And, sometimes these networks themselves have what are called ‘worker hierarchies’ (Dean, 2007). These hierarchies can be more fluid than those outside the network, since people within the network/team often change leadership roles with each project. (This also dilutes the feeling of being controlled, since you’re in charge on project A and she is in charge on project B).201001141434.jpg

It’s like the difference between a regular M&M (hierarchy) and a peanut butter M&M. Even if one section of the candy is peanut butter, the structure that matters most is created by the chocolate & candy coating. The center may be softer, but it’s still an M&M.

Now let me follow the candy example with something a little less sweet:

“Hierarchy is a property of a network’s structure, not something that a network replaces”
(Barley & Kunda, 2001, p 78).

Ultimately, embedding networks or teams in to an organization can flatten the organization slightly, but not in a way that transforms the organizations or the employees’ overall influence within them.

That’s not so bad if what you ultimately wanted was an M&M, and not a Hershey’s kiss.

But what if you were hoping for a more significant change?

See Also:
M. Ezzamel, and H. Willmott, “Accounting for Team Work: A Critical Study of Group-Based Systems of Organizational Control”, Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 43, 1998, pp. 358-396.
S. Barley, and G. Kunda, Bringing Work Back In”, Organization Science,Vol. 12, No. 1, January-February 2001, pp. 76-95.

When Will “Social Business” Become Social Change Business?
Can an organization not be ‘ready’ for Enterprise 2.0?

Just a note: 5 of the 6 flavors of M&M candy are represented by male characters. The peanut butter one is represented by a female character. What’s that about?

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Joseph Logan January 14, 2010 at 6:31 pm

I suspect our ability to envision new forms of organization outstrips our ability to manage them. I further suspect that this undermines acceptance of those new forms of organization. Do we know how to do flat or networked? I dunno. Your thought that one mode doesn’t necessarily replace the other seems pretty healthy to me.
.-= Joseph Logan´s last blog ..Positive psychology and adoption without coercion =-.

Anne Marie McEwan January 15, 2010 at 4:53 am


This is a great post. Thank you.

You might enjoy Barker, J.A (2003). ‘Tightening The Iron Cage: Concertive Control In Self-Managing Teams’ Administrative Science Quarterly , Vol. 38, p408 – 437. Ah, just had a quick look at Ezzamel and Willmot – they reference Barker.

It has been a long time since I read the paper. From memory, he shows how a self-managed team created their own behavioural norms and how this resulted in levels of self-imposed control that management could only dream of. I have seen this in practice when researching self-managed teams.

You are right about the myth of network structures. On a personal note, a project I managed years ago almost made me ill. It was a network of universities, trade unions, business organisations, think tanks and consultants. It was rich in cliques, power bases, pre-existing sub-groups, grievances, ambition, inclusion, exclusion etc. By the way, the trade unions and business organisations were as good as gold. No conflict there.

I have come to the conclusion that people will be people. Expecting them to play nice is futile. Some will, some will not. And of the some that will, even they sometimes will not when they have their own agendas to pursue.

I co-facilitate a learning network for IT, FM and HR specialists. We explore issues around the changing workplace and were very fortunate to have someone from Nokia come to speak to us about the Nokia Siemens merger that formed NSN. Our speaker was talking about creating conditions for the emergence of a new culture. He defined culture as “the struggle for shared meaning” and requires effort, courage, determination, constant attention, dialogue – and more dialogue. This is what is needed to bring about significant change.
.-= Anne Marie McEwan´s last blog ..Collaboration By Design =-.

Jon Ingham January 17, 2010 at 9:56 am

CV, I’ve been making what is I think probably a similar point – that networks and hierarchies are too different things. Changing one doesn’t necessarily change the other. And democracy and autonomy is probably a third thing again. Flat, networked organisations can probably still be miserable places in which to work.
.-= Jon Ingham´s last blog ..The Social Revolution – isn’t hierarchy to networks =-.

cv January 19, 2010 at 10:45 am

Joe, I’m thinking that we actually *don’t* know how to do ‘flat’ or networked organizations, except perhaps in organizations that arise from/among people who already have an alternative understanding of power and collaboration (e.g., some of the social change, social entrepreneurship groups).

I feel especially drawn towards Anne Marie’s suggestion that “effort, courage, determination, constant attention, dialogue – and more dialogue” are important, becuase we have to learn how to interact and organize differently if we are to make flatter organizations less oppressive. The issue from Barker’s work, as I remember it, is that it is not the form of control (‘concertive’) but the norms that were enforced using that control. But honestly I’d better go back and read it.

I too have horrible memories of seeing members of teams in high commitment work systems hurt each other as they grappled- without much help from management– to use a form of power (concertive) without understanding what was possible for them to be if they used that power in a more liberatory way. It was really the case of re-inscribing the same oppressions. So, I’m with Jon I. as well as Jon Husband, in calling for organizational change as intentional social change.

Thanks for adding to the conversation– I’m so glad to have you company and to be able to support you, too.
.-= cv´s last blog ..Networks and the Myth that Flatter Organizations are Better =-.

cv January 19, 2010 at 10:49 am

Here is a definition of concertive control, from Barker’s article:

“concertive” control … “represents a key shift in the locus of control from management to the workers themselves, who collaborate to develop the means of their own control. Workers achieve concertive control by reaching a negotiated consensus on how to shape their behavior according to a set of core values, such as the values found in a corporate vision statement. In a sense, concertive control reflects the adoption of a new substantive rationality, a new set of consensual values, by the organization and its members.”

But wait– there’s more. Here is a link to the Barker article:

Tightening the iron cage: concertive control in self-managing teams
Administrative Science Quarterly, Sept, 1993 by James R. Barker

gail@workplace safety guy May 3, 2010 at 12:03 pm

this is going to get some getting use to…safety must be stressed to be number one point at all times

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