Accountability Yes, Hierarchy No

I just don't think that hierarchy works in organizations that live at the intersection of education and technology. 

November 15, 2011

I just don't think that hierarchy works in organizations that live at the intersection of education and technology.  

Accountability yes, hierarchy no.   

Accountability is the ability and willingness of leadership to take responsibility for outcomes and results. Ultimately, if the service level is not excellent, if the unit is not innovative, or if the product is sub-standard, then it is leadership that is accountable.

The most important job of leadership is to get the people in the organization the resources and support they need to do their work. If leaders are not hiring people smarter than themselves then they are not doing their jobs.  

Don't mistake this as an argument to get rid of leadership, or invest the entire organization with responsibility for decision making. Quite the opposite. Leadership is more important than ever, as leaders must provide us all with a shared set of goals (while editing out other objectives), while creating a culture that focuses the entire organization.

Why doesn't hierarchy work in educational technology?   There are many reasons (and it would be great to hear your thoughts), I'll identify 5:

1. Information Flow: Information industries, and the world of education and technology is very much in this group, exist on the free flow of ideas, opinions and arguments.  Hierarchy is the enemy of the free flow of information. Hierarchies seeks to control how information flows around the organization, with a tendency to favor a trickle down approach.

2. The Power Knowledge Inversion: The more power people have in an organization (as defined by the power to hire, fire, and determine the work conditions of the people in the organization), the less knowledge they are likely to have about the specific daily tasks that make the organization run. A hierarchy makes it more difficult for those in the organization who have the knowledge, but not the power, to make their ideas and opinions known. We will naturally pay most attention to those with the most power, this is hard wired into our brains. The organizational structure should be designed to overcome this innate bias, with ideas being evaluated on their merits as opposed to the hierarchical position of the person in which they originated.

3. The Voice / Power Dilemma: In most meetings, those with the most power will speak most (and those with the least will speak least). Powerful people can come late to meetings, interrupt others with near impunity, and have the conversation directed disproportionately to them. Organizational hierarchy amplifies this meeting / voice dilemma, as the risk is that those with the most knowledge and good ideas do not have a safe platform to express them.

4. End-User Propinquity:  The people at the lower-end of a hierarchy tend to have the most contact with the customers and end-users. It would be interesting to map the percentage of time spent talking to end-users against an org chart.   It is this daily and sustained contact with customers and end-users, however, that provides the richest source of intelligence and knowledge. Sharing this knowledge should be a goal of any learning organization.

5. Individual Navigation vs. Organizational Success:  Everyone in the organization, particularly the leadership, needs to find a way to listen to what is on the minds of everyone else. This requires a culture that encourages honest and positive communication, collaboration, and yes disagreement. In a hierarchy our natural (again innate) tendency is to jockey for position, form alliances, and basically maneuver around the hierarchy. Success in a hierarchical structure may not translate into a successful organization.

The question is how we can flatten hierarchies while maintaining efficient, effective and productive organizations? My sense is that the best approach is for leadership to hire the best possible people, give them the resources they need to excel at their jobs, set clear big goals for the organization, and actively create a culture that rewards collaboration, risk taking, service and excellence.  

Is this hopefully utopian and naive?  

Are the old ideas of managerial hierarchy not even relevant to how most organizations working in education and technology structure themselves?

Do productivity and effectiveness break down without a clearly defined hierarchy?


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