What is a Wirearchy? How does it work? When should it be considered? When should it be avoided? What are the advantages? This post covers the basics elements of a Wirearchy.
What is a Wirearchy?
Jon Husband has a blog “wirearchy.com” which as you can tell from the name is dedicated to the subject.
It is an organizing principle. Instead of the top down, command and control hierarchy that we are used to, a wirearchy instead organizes around champions and channels. It is an organization designed around a networked world. He says:
The working definition of Wirearchy is “a dynamic two-way flow of power and authority, based on knowledge, trust, credibility and a focus on results, enabled by interconnected people and technology”.
The description reads a little like the communist manifesto where the employee is being liberated from the oppression of bureaucracy, where “rapid flows of information are like electronic grains of sand, eroding the pillars of rigid traditional hierarchies.” There is no doubt that information technology is having a profound effect on how we organize, and a Wirearchy is an honest attempt to distill the trends that are already happening around us.
Husband feels that Taylorism, or Scientific Management, is coded into the traditional hierarchy. Scientific management can be seen as the application of Enlightenment (reductionist) principles to work processes. Breaking highly complicated manufacturing into a sequence of discrete well defined steps, so that work can be passed from person to person in a factory like setting. It is surprising that he draws a parallel between hierarchies and scientific management, because the latter is between 100 and 200 years old, while hierarchies have been used since ancient times, and don’t seem to be related to the industrial revolution at all. Hierarchies worked for the Egyptians.
“first we shape our structures, then our structures shape us” -Churchill
Is it Technology?
Husband claims that the concept of wirearchy has nothing to do with technology. I think I know what he means: it is an organization of human interactions, not specifically a something designed in a piece of software. Thus a wirearchy would then be what we used to call “the grape vine” – an informal network of communications. In this sense wirearchies have always existed.
To say that it has nothing to do with technology is not really honest. It is the expansion of telecommunications technologies that allow so many more people to be connected than before. It is the information technology that allows a wirearchy to be more than just a gossip network.
Indeed Husband seem to contradict himself. Consider the advise to a manager: “become knowledgeable about online work systems and how the need for collaboration is changing the nature of work.” A wirearchy is not instigated by an specific technology system, but there is no doubt that a wirearchy results from new modes of communications from social technology in general.
Not a Revolution
Husband does not expect traditional hierarchies to be replaced by wirearchies. Hierarchies remain, but wirearchies explain some of the changes we are seeing in the interconnected world.
I really want to compare this to Francois Gossieaux’s “Human 1.0” which is that social technologies are allowing us to working together in a much more natural way. People have always built their own networks, but during the industrial revolution there was a strong incentive to organize into much more rigid organizational structures. Call those rigid structures from industrialization and scientific management “human 2.0”. Then social networks will allows us be just as productive, but get back to relating to each on in a way that people always have.
The Big Shift: Push vs. Pull
Hagel et. al. talk about social technology bringing about a shift from push oriented organizations, to pull organizations. The point of a wirearchy is that initiatives do not start from the top, and get pushed to the workers. Instead, initiatives can start from anyplace, and be carried out by ad-hoc teams that know each other and share common goals. That sound very much the same as a pull organization: the edges of the organization in direct contact with the customer make key decisions about what will be offered, and then are supported by the rest of the organization to deliver the results. The hierarchy does not go away, instead the focus is on how it is used, and where the initiative come from.
One of the central themes is responsiveness to change. He says people should “be aware of, and identify, the changes and prepare for more change on an ongoing basis.” In other words, prepare to be Agile. Don’t forget, it was Alvin Toffler in his 1970 book “Future Shock” said exactly the same thing: in the future success will depend less on perfecting a particular mode of work, and instead in learning how to rapid and continually adopt new patterns of work.” The idea that we need to adapt quickly is not new.
But Still … Highly Relevant
Reading the above I seem critical of the originality of wirearchy, but let me clarify. Wirearchy is a way of seeing and talking about what is happening. Many others are seeing the same thing, and that is why it is so important. Here are some highlights of posts he has written:
- Thoughts on Evolving From Modern (Machine) Hierarchy to Adaptive (Ecosystem) Wirearchy – reflecting on the difference between the machine view (complicated) with truly complex system that can not be viewed as a machine (see my post on this difference).
- The Intersection of People, Information and New Forms of Technology Changes Everything (Eventually) – crediting Michel Cartier with the kinds of changes you might expect.
- Is It Official Yet? – has an excellent video from John Kotter about winning in a faster and faster world. The old methods don’t work. Organizations evolve. You might start as an entrepreneur, but as soon as your organization gets to the point of shipping a product, the old hierarchy appears. In a slow moving world that is fine, but we are faster now. A hybrid approach is suggested.
Harold Jarche has written a number of posts on wirearchy:
- Wirearchy to scale successfully – about how organization that embrace wirearchy principles (which is all about delegation and deentralization) tend to scale better than highly centralized organizations.
- Re-wiring for the Complex Workplace – the office is a complex place, and encouraging connections at all levels helps. (see my posts on workplace complexity and management of that.)
- Wirearchies are smarter than the sum of their parts – he stresses “We need to undo our dominant business models which are the legacy of military hierarchies because they are inefficient, ineffective, and stifle innovation. Hierarchies are only as good as the smartest gatekeeper. Wirearchies are smarter than the sum of their parts.” Re-wired organizations are more stable as well.
- In a wired world, companies have to re-wire – where he give four levels: (1) Coordination of routine & standardized work, (2) The daily practice of getting work done, (3) The continuous development of expertise, (4) Connecting to others with complementary interests
Organizations that do not adapt to the changes that social technology brings to the market and to the office will be left behind by those who adapt. There is no question that such pressures exist. It is useful to talk about a wirearchy as a view of how organizations are changing, and as a guiding principle to help determining the better future course of action available to organizaitons.
“” coded into the traditional hierarchy. …
It is surprising that he draws a parallel between hierarchies and scientific method, because the latter is between 100 and 200 years old, while hierarchies have been used since ancient times, and don’t seem to be related to the industrial revolution at all.””
This would be an useful example of taking one or two sentences as a quote out of context to point out how it does not explain a larger or more complex idea. Of course social (and other) hierarchies have been around for centuries. What I mean by “coded into” covers a range of forms of ‘coding’ as in codification. That is, key assumptions about division of labour, what accountability and control are or how they are represented, the scaling of efficiencies, the focus stemming from specialization .. all these and other core assumptions have been embedded into business / organizational orthodoxy over the past 100 years or so, often or mainly due to the application of various methods derived from scientific management theories. And the last 50 years has been all about the application of many such methods, through to the most recent re-engineering initiatives.
To put it another way .. we have never before had the particular set of conditions involving hyperlinks,mechanical memory, persistence, provenance, search that will or can allow us to see the effects of information on existing forms of (ostensibly) knowledge-based structural power and authority.
Hi Jon, what an honor to have you comment here! If I have taken something out of context and misrepresented it, I apologize for that (these things happen) and I greatly appreciate any clarification that you can provide.
Oh, you pointed out a bad typo: I did not mean to say “method” in the paragraph that you cited. I will change that to “management” as I meant. Oops.
Is it fair to say that what you mean is that the all of us have been taught by scientific management (as the prevailing management theory) that you should get all your direction and support from your (single) immediate boss, and you should provide the same to people who report to you? In other words, scientific management teaches that hierarchies work, and you should avoid going around the hierarchy? I certainly agree that scientific management is based on reductionist ideas of finding the single best way to work, and also agree that recent ‘reengineering’ efforts tend to be simplistic for the same reasons. I did not understand that “coded into the hierarchy” meant that, but if that is what you meant it makes more sense now.
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