Bas Reus' quest on self-organization and online collaborative spaces

Heterarchies

Posted in online collaborative spaces, self-organization by Bas Reus on October 1, 2009

Many discussions about change in organizations are about the demise of hierarchies and the rise of the networks. Sure, this is a trend that can be seen, but there are not many organizations without hierarchy, and I don’t think hierarchies will diminish completely. On the contrary, hierarchies have a valid function and purpose, there are familiar and relatively simple. However what we do see, is that organizations become flatter, layers are becoming thinner or even removed, and people connect more with other people by means of technology.

Karen Stephenson acknowledges this as well, and comes with an interesting point of view: heterarchies (PDF link to article). The heterarchy consists of at least three separate hierarchies that have their own responsibilities, but must collaborate to achieve a collective good that is too complex to achieve on their own. She defines the heterarchy as follows:

A heterarchy is an organizational form somewhere between hierarchy and network that provides horizontal links permitting different elements of an organization to cooperate, while they individually optimize different success criteria.

What she seems to say, is that hierarchies have their disadvantages that are removed by networks, but either the latter doesn’t work in reality or is too complex. She’s seems to search for something is between, the best of both worlds.

According to Stephenson, it is important to have these different hierarchies engaged. Key is collaboration instead of competition. Partnerships between organizations as you wish, or between business units within large corporations. And she admits that this is not easy at all. When you try to map a large organization as a heterarchy, you have to find connectors. The table below compares the market, hierarchy, network en heterarchy on some features. It focuses on its strengths.
Heterarchies according to Karen Stephenson
I am not looking for a proper definition of heterarchies, or whether you agree with Stephenson or not (well, I’m curious for that of course), but I am more interested in how you can identify people or hubs in an organization that is a connector to other parts of the organization, but not in a hierarchical way. This identification can make such organizational forms less complex. But how do you map these people? Are they certain types of people, who you can trust? Do they have to have certain positions in an organization? Stephenson suggests the following steps:

  1. Send out a survey where people identify other people that you think are innovative, have integrity, work hard to achieve goals, that you depend upon, and ask people who should be surveyed as well.
  2. Find connectors by means of  interviews. People that score high on the surveys can be persons to ask questions to validate the survey.
  3. Connect connectors so they can exchange information, knowing that they need each other. They can connect organizational silo’s and collaborate instead of compete.

According to Stephenson there are three types of connectors, or actors in these heterarchies, hubs, gatekeepers and pulstakers. Hubs know a lot of people and act as facilitators, gatekeepers are critical connections between networks and help people to focus, and pulstakers are asked for their opinions and guard the integrity. So if you can map an organization more like a network, or like Stephenson, as a heterarchy (I’d rather call it the informal connections), what’s next? How can these hubs or connectors be more of use to the organization, how can their strengths be utilized better?

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