A word on hierarchies

I thought I’d share this paragraph from my book “Corporations Don’t Tweet – People Do”. I am about to deliver my first draft to the publisher this week and it seems a shame not to do something else with all these words!

There has been a lot written about the end of hierarchies. In fact David Weinberger once wrote that “hyperlinks subvert hierarchies”. But do we really mean this? Don’t hierarchies emerge everywhere in human nature? Won’t there be some who take to blogging and tweeting more readily than others and therefore end up on the top of a new  pile? Perhaps, but it is likely to be a more temporary ascendancy to the top of the pile – because the pile keeps moving and morphing into other piles. What is much more likely to emerge is an ephemeral meritocracy. You will gain status, and therefore power, if you add value to a lot of people. But don’t expect it to last. Don’t attempt to freeze it and institutionalise it.  Someone else will add more value tomorrow, and the moving anthill of conversations will move on. The networks of individuals will reshape around the new conversations and those who are adding value will change.

19 thoughts on “A word on hierarchies

  1. You've put your finger on a key distinction that I believe we are already starting to witness as networks spread and obtain more *practice*.Hierarchy does not and will not go away .. but it's increasingly temporary and derives from "knowledge, trust, credibility and a focus on results." It will be less official-and-role-based and more who-knows-or-can-do-what-for-a-specific-reason … until the next challenge.Well said, Euan. But aren't *heirarchies* the succession of inheritees in landed British families ?


  2. Sorry .. I was (trying to) being too cute by half. I was focusing on the word "heir" as in "My son and daughter. you are my heirs", and then extrapolating to the inheritance of position and (sometimes) power and authority.


  3. Klout revises its figures every three months I think; I saw my 'influence' go up to 43 then drop to 22 in the space of a month. It was a bit heady up there in the semi-stratosphere, but I suspect I was the only one to notice ;o)


  4. To be boringly serious. The difference between those on top of the twitterverse etc and hierarchy is that the first is an emergent property of a power law that can change, sometimes very rapidly. The other is an architecture designed to perpetuate the outcome of some previous power law outcome.When hierarchy comes up against power law, power laws win because they are dynamic and highly mobile/flexible and hierarchies are, by definition, fixed. Its always easier to hit a fixed target than a protean one.


  5. Earl's points are spot on. Part of the reason we're all noticing and witnessing and talking about these issues is because there's been a generally-unspoken assumption develop over the years that the hierarchies we know .. the institutions .. are (or were) relatively static .. as were their activities, services, etc.That assumption is now foundering every day.


  6. Well put, Euan (definitely buying your book, too), and good comments by Earl and Jon!There's an interesting academic paper that I read recently, "Hierarchical group dynamics in pigeon flocks" (Nagy, Ágos, Biro & Vicsec), published in Nature (Aug 2010 vol 468).In the paper the authors studied the motion patterns of a pigeon flock, and analysed the hierarchical organisation of group flight. Their analysis suggested that hierarchical organisation of the group flight may actually be more efficient than egalitarian one, especially when leader-follower roles change dynamically based on the interactions between group members.This is quite similar to what Euan wrote in the paragraph, and my own practical observations of the dynamics of roles in social networking indicate similar emergent behavior.Organisations aren't inherently good or bad. They don't necessarily imply rigidness or inflexibility. Hiearchies are exogenous system constraints, and can be very useful. In social networks, hierarchies are often dynamic and shifting, and can be viewed as emergent, endogenous constraints to the system.I quote a paragraph from the paper:"Thus, although the current data are equivocal, they are suggestive that leadership may be related to individual navigational efficiency, with birds higher in the hierarchy also demonstrating more accurate solo navigation. Whether such effects would derive from more motivated or inherently better navigators being better able to assume leadership roles, or from birds that have had more experience leading also having had increased opportunities for navigational learning (the passenger/driver effect) remains an intriguing open question regarding the causes—or indeed consequences—of leadership."It's easy to find parallels to human systems and social networks. Those who find themselves in leadership positions (appointed, assumed, or emergent), naturally gain leadership experience and function in that role more naturally, thus enforcing their leadership position. It's a form of a positive feedback loop.Another quote is even more interesting, and best reflects what Euan wrote:"In the case of our flocks, pairwise leader–follower relations may be established more spontaneously, in a state-dependent fashion, based on individuals’ current motivation, navigational knowledge, ability, and so forth. As these attributes can vary over short timescales, individuals’ roles are manifested in a dynamically changing manner, that is, only on average, with the leading role of a given bird fluctuating over time. Our quantitative results reveal a delicate arrangement of these dynamic leader– follower relations into a hierarchical network comprising a spectrum in levels of leadership."This is strikingly similar to what Euan is saying in that chapter from his upcoming book, and it's easy to see how the same dynamics work in human systems as well, like the authors themselves also speculate.I provide the link to the whole paper here. I think you'll find it fascinating readinghttp://www.cals.ncsu.edu/course/zo501/Hierarchical%20group%20dynamics%20in%20pigeon%20flocks.pdf


  7. It's a great observation, that we retain our status as long as we're adding value, and that this is a change from the structures of the past, where those that had gained status became the guardians of information – thus protecting that position. Now the tools and the data are in the hands of the many, which is inherently subversive in ways that we couldn't imagine a few years ago.It's extremely exciting, if a little scary, to be on this ride – but I'd rather know I was on it than not. Many organisations are oblivious to the fact that they're part of this change, and the shock might kill a lot of them!


  8. "Ephemeral meritocracy" is an excellent description. Hierarchies cause problems when organisations attempt to maintain them over long periods of time no matter what changes take place in the operating environment, and where a rise up the hierarchy is based on conformity to a very specific set of criteria rather than wider knowledge, trust, respect and flexibility. We see advances where people welcome emergent thinking as a contribution.


  9. A very well-known leadership 'guru', Warren Bennis, has oft been quoted as saying "hierarchy is a prosthesis for trust". Much can be inferred or deduced from that statement, no ?


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