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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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