Are Hierarchies All Bad? LO6852
Sun, 21 Apr 1996 15:02:33 -0400

Replying to LO6809 --

Hi Eric,

The thread that you have started is a helpful pointer to the different
concepts of hierarchy that are used in the discussions on the list. IMHO
we have to distinguish between hierarchy as a necessary property of
complex systems (which humans and their organizations are) and hierarchy
as a bureacratic power structure, as exemplified in the formal North
American organization chart. I think that this distinction explains the
apparent contradiction between the perspective of Japanese academics
(Nonaka and Takeuchi), who say middle managers are critical to the
management process and that of the reengineers, who say that middle
managers are the problem!

The Japanese take a more dynamic, systemic view. From a systems
perspective, all managers are "in the middle" in some sense. That is, they
are trapped between a context which constrains their ability to act and an
operational level, where they are free to act, but ignorant as to what to
do (because so much of the knowledge in the system is tacit not explicit).
The view of the reengineers, on the other hand, is static and thoroughly
non-systemic: the whole notion of "clean sheet" design is ludicrous from a
complex systems perspective. From a systems perspective, hierarchy is
history and any successful organization which "cleaned the sheet" would
disappear (and there are a few that have in the aftermath of

Even modern "network" organizations can be described as such only if you
restrict your description to a single level of analysis. For the network
runs on a whole lot of hierarchically organized nodes (people and
computers) and links. The whole system depends upon a zillion subroutines
which run automatically. If it is to be effective a "network"
organizations must also function under an "ideological umbrella" of shared
purposes and common values. The "delayering" and "empowering" in such
organizations does mean that there is less hierarchy in a static
reengineering sense. But from systems perspective, we have just
substituted some forms of hierarchical control for others. While these
forms of hierarchy may liberate the system at the individual level at
first, they will constrain people in their turn. Anyone who has tried to
change a "legacy" computer system can testify that big software programs
can be just as difficult to manage and change as any human bureaucracy!
And strong ideologies which become dysfunctional can be even tougher to
change. "Getting rid of hierarchy" is not a feasible objective from a
systems perspective, "getting rid of excessive bureacracy" is, but there
is no "free lunch".

Best wishes,
David Hurst,
Speaker, Consultant and Writer on Management
Author of "Crisis & Renewal" (HBS Press, 1995)
See description in New Books at


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