Networks make hierarchies nervous

A couple of times every week I get involved in conversations about networks and how they can improve things in traditional organizations. Speed up internal communication… Build new client relationship structures… Improve projects… Increase employee participation… 

Increasingly I'm starting to see flaws in this reasoning. I sense more wishful thinking than actual improvements. More charades than real network action.

As I see it hierarchies are really good at one thing – driving out and eliminating variation. This is essentially what hierarchies are designed for. Just picture Henry Ford's assembly line. Or the function of a military structure. So, anything that generates variation, i.e. networks, makes a hierarchy nervous and will unsurprisingly create reactions.

The reaction might be to embrace networks, and then subconsciously sabotage them. Or openly confront the "informal and uncontrolled flow of internal information". Maybe even restrict employees from "unauthorized participation" in external forums that discuss a company's products/services.

Why is this? Well basically social networks tend to expose and erode power structures and encourage self-organization. And hierarchies in contrast build and harbor power structures and encourage command and control. 

An unhappy match indeed.


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