It might be a surprise that I place the erosion of hierarchies as one of my top beliefs about workplace learning. In the last several articles, we focused on aspects of the changing workplace and also discussed behaviors that those of us in the learning and development (L&D) role can adopt to help improve our effectiveness. Still, much of this applies to issues we face today and things we can do to improve our products, designs, and our even approach to workplace learning as an organization. It’s just as important, if not more so, to look ahead to how workplace communication and learning channels are evolving.

When I look around, I see that most organizations remain hierarchical. It’s a structure that derives from the evolution of how work became organized in the industrial age.1 Its purpose is ultimately to help produce viable products, whether they’re tangible or knowledge-based (such as in a consultancy). Leadership and guidance start at the top of the hierarchy. Responsibility, accountability, initiatives, and tasks flow downward along organizational lines, ultimately landing in a workgroup.

The hierarchy is commonly represented with the org chart, a two-dimensional block diagram showing the authoritative wiring of the organization.

The hierarchy is commonly represented with the org chart, a two-dimensional block diagram showing the authoritative wiring of the organization.

It’s relatively easy for us to understand the hierarchy of an organization, most commonly represented in the form of an org chart. This two-dimensional block diagram clearly shows the wiring of the organization and the interconnection between layers of manager/direct report relationships. When new organizational responsibilities are assumed, new workgroups are added to the org chart. When responsibilities change, workgroups are realigned or eliminated.

How an organization structures itself largely depends on the nature of its work. A large corporation operating retail outlets worldwide may organize by geographical region, further subdividing as needed into a manageable grouping of locations. A large consulting firm will organize using very different criteria. No matter how an organization structures itself, the most facile communication is often between coworkers within workgroups. These workers share organizational accountabilities and should be incentivized to cooperatively solve their most important problems.

Why the Hierarchy is Evolving

In the hierarchy, work is managed in workgroups. In some cases workers are trained to perform virtually all tasks required of the group with members working as a team. In others, workgroup members have areas of specialization, each performing unique tasks. And in others, particularly for knowledge workers, individuals exercise a high degree of self direction, applying their unique (but often related) skills, knowledge, and expertise to solve problems.


Exploring just a few of the connections between workers across the larger organization becomes complex. The full structure of such interconnections defies two-dimensional representation.

Whether a workgroup consists of individuals with common expertise or having widely dissimilar backgrounds, its members have many interests. Workers naturally forge personal and professional relationships with others across the larger organization. These connections can be strong, especially for knowledge workers who need to collaborate to solve problems. If we explore such connections for every employee in the organization, the resulting structure becomes complex and multidimensional. It defies two-dimensional representation and begins to look more network-like, more like a wirearchy as described by Jon Husband:

The wirearchy is, “a dynamic two-way flow of  power and authority, based on knowledge, trust, credibility and a focus on results, enabled by interconnected people and technology”.2

1024px-Computerplatine_Wire-wrap_backplane_detail_Z80_Doppel-Europa-Format_1977While the hierarchy and wirearchy are fundamentally different organizing principles, Harold Jarche suggests a path from one to the other: “This can be the first step in developing a wirearchy: giving explicit permission to engage in social networks and bypassing, or even obsolescing, the formal communications structures.”3 In fact, the flow of information along networked, wirearchy-like paths has already been realized within organizations and is not a future state. The strength of individual connections, and the extent to which knowledge flows between workers in different workgroups, depends largely on the work of the organization, its culture, and available communication channels. In workplaces consisting largely of knowledge workers, that flow can be strong. However, it is power and authority that are exchanged across the workplace network in a true wirearchy, not only knowledge. And certainly interconnected knowledge workers do exchange power and authority in the form of  yielding and exerting influence. This is the economy of a network.

Conventional communication channels, such as face-to-face meetings, email, and the telephone, have thus far supported the evolution of wirearchy-like structures within the workplace hierarchy. Deploying modern social media inside the workplace, if used naturally  in the flow of work, will only catalyze this evolution. Organizations must acknowledge this and develop new ways to support these internal networks to do important work. In this way, the organization can become (as Harold Jarche says) more flexible and able to respond faster to change.

How Does This Affect Learning and Development?

Remembering that at least 70% of employee learning is experiential and more than half of what remains is social, the bulk of employee learning happens where knowledge and information are exchanged. In the hierarchy, this is largely in workgroups. One of the benefits that L&D historically provides is to connect workers with one another and with experts across the larger organization through our programs. It may even be the chief reason that our corporate universities have lasted as long as they have, and remains one reason employees in diverse organizations continue to appreciate face-to-face classes.

In the emerging wirearchy, social and experiential learning are distributed widely across the organization. Connecting workers with expertise has much less value when workers self-connect to the knowledge they need when they need it. We in L&D must further evaluate our role in this scenario, embrace our many emerging roles, and focus on facilitating learning in the flow of work with an emphasis on performance.

  1. Hannan, Michael T. “History of the Organization of Work.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, 6 Aug. 2007. Web. 02 Jan. 2015.
  2. Husband, Jon. “What Is Wirearchy ? – Wirearchy.” Wirearchy. N.p., 16 Feb. 2013. Web. 03 Jan. 2015.
  3. Jarche, Harold. “A New Way to Work.” Harold Jarche, 1 Jan. 2015. Web. 03 Jan. 2015.

Thanks for reading!


I Believe in the Erosion of Hierarchies — 1 Comment

  1. Really interesting and thought-provoking post Tom (as usual).

    Here are my thoughts: In Business School, the teaching of management is about managing both formal and informal networks/structures within the organization. Naturally, all organizations must have some type of formal structure to ensure everyone is focused on one objective (the mission) and avoid complete anarchy. Leaders require formal structures to answer the need for control and focus.

    That said, more effectively managed organizations strive towards a flatter structure, too some extent echoing your post. The issue is that a ‘flat’ structure is found more when the organization is young and growing, essentially when it is in its entrepreneurial phase. As it grows, there is a requirement for increasing formality to ensure control and focus. Also, the flat structure is when more informal and fluid learning takes place as there are few boundaries and limitations.

    Many Learning practitioners fail to recognize is that business leaders, and something you touched upon, expect ‘learning’ to take place and that it is not confined to a role or instance. Learning is something that progressive leaders see as pervasive and unconfined to any/every part of the organization.

    The problem lies in the collective thinking of the workplace Learning profession/community. As a group, it strives to ‘compartmentalize’ the learning function/activities in an attempt to prove its value to business leaders, at least this is generally what we like to believe. What is needed is the ability to harness, leverage, and, most importantly, apply learning interactions, both informal and formal, to the right segment of the hierarchy.

    The most famous example is a company by the name of Google. It is the closest example of what you refer to as the ‘wirearchy’. For years Google made an effort to limit the ‘hierarchy’ so that it could leverage the ‘learning’ occurring throughout the organization. While successful, its rapid growth emphasized control and structure and, against its initial intentions, had to develop an hierarchical structure that would allow it to maintain its focus, albeit ensuring an adaptable org. structure when needed. While being very informal in its youth, it is a company that knows when to emphasize/capitalize informal structures and all the while respecting the need for formality for growth. All in all, it is still able to promote and leverage ‘learning’ within its structures but more importantly, it recognizes what ‘learning’ is relevant to its efforts.

    You can say that Google, Zappos, Netflix, are attempting to leverage a “wirearchy”, but, and not to undermine the great work of Jon Husband and my friend Harold Jarche, the “wirearchy” is simply informal, or organic, elements within the existing organizational structure. It is something that business leaders strive to leverage and manage since the inception of the formal organizational structure. Personally, the “wirearchy” is simply another repackaged term for organizing informal and organic networks.

    Idealistically, it would be nice to have little or no organizational structures but this is an essential business element for every organization and unrealistic to believe it could not exist. But first, workplace learning must itself acknowledge ‘learning’s’ business relevance and discover the need for certain business concepts before tossing around thoughts such as ‘eliminating’ organizational hierarchies.

    Ultimately, what workplace learning must figure out is how to recognize the business needs and target the appropriate learning to the right areas within the organization. Workplace learning must limit the compartmentalization of learning and become integral with business objectives.

    I have much more to say on this topic as it frustrates me that the workplace learning space keeps on trying to ‘repackage’ business concepts rather than embracing what their businesses and leader expect from them.

    Thank you Tom for allowing to voice my position. And Thank you for writing a thought-provoking piece, I always enjoy your posts.

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