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25 May 2008


Jay Fienberg

You're covering a lot here, and I agree with what I think are your primary points. But, I think it's wrong to place the blame on hierarchical structures themselves, as compared with how coercive approaches can be magnified in many cases by hierarchies.

I definitely think a lot of organizations fail in structural ways, and that very often an aspect of their structural failure is what they do through their org chart hierarchy (i.e., all the things you are critiquing so well).

But, hierarchies can work in all kinds of ways. They are, in fact, simply a type of connection--and really smart organizations get that and use their hierarchies as infrastructure for fostering a connective environment. When this happens, a little hierarchy goes a long way--and *that* is actually the deeper issue: how to use hierarchy to effectively distribute power rather than lock it up at the top.

A connective organization also might use hierarchies to, for example, nullify the situation Shirky describes. In other words, the hierarchy exists specifically as a fail-over mechanism. I have seen orgs think this way by drawing their org chart upside down--management is an infrastructure layer at the bottom.

I don't know the context of Shirky's statement, but on its own, it's wrong. Hierarchy is not a prescription for a disconnected organization; and lack of hierarchy is likewise not a prescription for a connected organization.

We (web people) have to watch out for making hierarchy into a bugbear. It's actually anti-web to be anti-hierarchy, because, if you recognize that there is a web of connections, then you really should recognize that hierarchy is just one possible kind of web of connections.

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