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