Total bureaucracy, bullshit jobs, functional stupidity, mediocracy, etc. All of the most scathing critiques of contemporary managerial systems seem to share one thing, namely a common enemy: hierarchy, or indeed the very principle of hierarchical structure.
Hierarchy stands accused of all manner of ills: negating the wisdom of crowds, perpetuating informational asymmetry between the hierarchs and those who do their bidding, and, of course, a lack of transparency. Much criticism has been directed at the distance that hierarchy establishes between individuals at work, bound together exclusively by ‘hierarchical relationships’ which serve only to exacerbate the general sense of incomprehension and the inadequacy of interpersonal relations.
A proliferation of alternative models
The result is an endless stream of disasters of varying scale and intensity, blighting the existence of businesses and organisations, stoked by autocratic dysfunctionality at the top levels and an inability to question the wisdom of over-policed processes in the lower reaches. Nobody appears to be surprised anymore by the singularity of the situations we encounter, or the state of permanent catastrophe gripping industry, medicine, public health and the air travel sector.
In response to this ramified manifestation of the banality of evil, in recent years we have seen a proliferation of alternative models which are implicitly liberated from hierarchical principles.
Child defines hierarchy as a system whose members are organised by status, a situation which engenders unequal relations.
But what do we really mean by hierarchy? This is the question explored in Hierarchy: A Key Idea for Business and Society by John Child, Emeritus Professor of Commerce at the University of Birmingham and Fellow of the British Academy. Child defines hierarchy as a system whose members are organised by status, a situation which engenders unequal relations.
He argues that this phenomenon is in fact inevitable, judging by the history of organisations: it is in fact the only solution ever found to the problem of authority, or, more accurately, the lack of authority. Hence Taylor’s canonical view of the factory as comprising a manager, foremen and workers; or a professional football club with its head coach, deputy coach and physical trainer; or even the Catholic Church with its bishops, priests and deacons. There is no shortage of potential examples.
These organisational structures are intended to provide clarity and stability, as recommended (Child reminds us) by no less a figure than Plato. And even if they tell us little about where power really lies in the organisation – it is not rare to encounter scores of bosses with little real authority –, this only serves to highlight the crushing inevitability of hierarchy.
When the stock of formal hierarchies falls, it does so at the expense of more informal hierarchies, operating on more or less the same principles. And if those informal hierarchies should ever see their influence wane, then the official organisational hierarchy will once again become the yardstick of decision-making power.
Child suggests that ‘flat’ organisations might be the best solution for a world that is anything but flat.
The solution is not as straightforward as simply doing away with the quasi-universal principle of subordination. The real problem is hierarchy’s lack of legitimacy and efficacy faced with an increasingly complex world, which seems to be better-suited to network structures which are, by definition, less vertical.
Child suggests that ‘flat’ organisations might be the best solution for a world that is anything but flat: they facilitate employee participation, encourage communication at all levels and foster a spirit of ‘codetermination’, as seen in the German managerial model.
He also nods towards holacracy, founded upon self-organising working groups, but attaches particular importance to the democratic requirement that all managers be held accountable for their actions. In short, these are heterarchical solutions that leave more room for collective intelligence in problem-solving, and for the preservation of the common good.
Growing underground organisations?
This would take the form of decentralised networks, without pyramid structures and rigid representations, existing in a state of permanent metamorphosis which brings to mind Deleuze and Guattari’s adoption of the rhizome – “the underground stems possessed by certain plants, capable of sending out new roots and shoots” – as a philosophical concept.
Sticking with this plant metaphor, the future of organisations may be more rhizomatic and less arborescent. This leaves ample room for a second tome which would clear some of the weeds currently surrounding this botanical future, and provide some horticultural tips for organisational theorists.
This review was previously published in French by Xerfi Canal.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the position of ESCP Business School.
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