Are Hierarchies All Bad? LO6941

Jessica Lipnack (
Mon, 22 Apr 1996 18:45:07 -0500

Replying to LO6852 --

Kudos to Eric for starting this conversation (I hope I'm recalling this
properly) and yes, yes, to Ram Sundaram and David Hurst for their
trenchant observations on the need for hierarchy. I particularly like
Ram's "client/server" shift and David's excellent summary of the need for
hierarchy in complex systems.

"From a systems perspective, hierarchy is history," David writes, and a
lot of it to boot. I can never understand why people want to completely
throw out the hierarchy--and I've never seen an organization that has rid
itself entirely of hierarchy or bureaucracy, annoying as these forms of
organization can be at times. Surely with thousands of years of hierarchy
and hundreds of years of bureaucracy, we've learned something worth

Hierarchy got a bad rap when it was used only to describe social systems
that imply one-way, top-down control. Hierarchy in the scientific sense
is quite revered, as David suggests, pointing to the complexity of any
large scale system. Herbert Simon did a beautiful job of describing the
elegance of hierarchy in his classic 1965 paper, "The Architecture of
Complexity." All complex systems, he says, are nested in levels.

Extending this idea to social systems, then, as David says, even networks
are hierarchical--offensive as that idea is to some. Most networks are
made up of small groups that are linked together, often into more
inclusive, "higher level" groups. Thus, networks can accommodate very
large numbers of people. In fact, there is no end to how large a network
of people can be, which, as Ram points out, we are witnessing in the
growth of the Internet--more than who-knows- how-many people, clustered in
small groups, filtered to one another through ever more complex systems.

But it would be a cop-out to stop there. Hierarchy in its social sense is
usually fraught with problems, and bureaucracy, well, need I go into the
gory details of its daily life? The solution, I believe, is to "network"
the levels of the hierarchy and the isolated functions of the bureaucracy.
By doing so you can create very complex, very flexible organizations that
make the most of *all* forms of organization.

End of diatribe. This discussion really hit a familiar chord for me.
Thanks again.


Jessica Lipnack <>
The Networking Institute, Inc., 505 Waltham Street, West Newton, MA 02165 USA
Tel: 617/965-3340; Fax: 617/965-2341; Web page:

-- (Jessica Lipnack)

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