Information Flow & Hierarchies LO11699
Tue, 7 Jan 1997 21:59:40 +1300 (NZDT)

Replying to LO11687 --

Ben Compton said, in LO11655,

>At the same time I don't see why a hierarchical structure should dictate
>how information flows through an organization. The hierarchy brings a
>sense of order to the organization.

To which Scott Simmerman responded

"My experiences say that some hierarchy is a necessity (and we spent a lot
of time discussing some of these issues before, I believe). There is a
need for some structure to guide the direction of the organization and as
a key component in the motivational aspects of the process (the whole
thing about goals, expectations, feedback and reinforcement). "

And as Ben added,

>But information can flow in any
>direction, from any node to any node, without the permission of those in
>the hierarchy. In fact each new piece of information introduced into an
>organization may take an completely different route than all other pieces
>of information. Information flow is really controled by how those who
>intitially receive information interpret it, and decide who else should
>see it.

It seems to me that the lesson which we can extract from this dialogue is
that hierarchies - that is, order - in organisations are necessary for
there to be functionality. But the issue is whether the hierarchy exists
for its own sake, and for the sake of the sense of self and position of
the members of the organisation; or whether it exists in order for the
organisation to be able to achieve its goals in an ordered manner.

If it is the former we will frequently find that maintaining the protocols
of the hierarchy are considered more important than the achievement of
goals - with the consequence that the organisation's performance is
perversely sub-optimal. These situations are most clearly experienced when
information is denied to a person or group who need it on the grounds that
they are not authorised to have that information.

This situation does not matter very much when the organisation has simple
goals which change only slowly in a relatively stable environment. In such
situations the functions and constraints of the invariate hierarchies
become aligned with what is needed to achieve the known goals.

The problems of a hierarchy existing for its own sake become progressively
revealed as change and uncertainty become more intrusive in the
organisation and its environment. The only way the organisation can cope
is to create new hierarchical protocols for each new task. This requires
a substantial cultural shift in most western organisations, for it
requires individuals to switch from seeing a world in which 'I am my
position', to one where the individual can comfortably accept playing
different roles in different situations. It is my experience that this is
far from impossible, but that it is most easily achieved in small, start
up, and rapidly growing organisations. When they become large and mature
organisations tend to atrophy as control mechanisms begin to justify
themselves and individuals lose personal touch with organisational goals.

It also seems to me that all this is a defining characteristic of
organisational learning - moving mosaic hierarchies = information always
flowing from who has it to who needs it = people willing and able to
accept the responsibility of acting on information made available to them
and willing and able to distribute information appropriately = a learning
organisation. For me an implication of this is that motivational methods
which depend on stimulating personal ambition and the pursuit of 'career
paths' are useful in inverse proportion to the degree of uncertainty in
the organisation's operational environment.

There is also the profound and significant implication that in some
settings - the military, the flight deck of an airliner, the control room
of a nuclear power plant - the operational norm is intensely in search of
stability and certainty, and therefore the rule of clear and rigid
hierarchies: but the operational EXCEPTION (battle, engine failure,
cooling system failure) requires effective operators to be able to
instantaneously shift to new hierarchical relationships, and to know when
they need to do it. The research of Engestrom and many others has
demonstrated that in almost every setting 'experts' outperform 'novices'
in dealing with the predictable, the standard, and the patterned; but
'novices' outperform 'experts' in dealing with the novel, the unpredicted,
and the event outside known patterns.

We cannot CREATE a learning organisation. We can only foster the
organisational characteristics and individual predispositions in which
organisational learning may flourish.

Phillip Capper
Centre for Research on Work, Education and Business
New Zealand


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