Groups versus Individuals

organisation hierarchy

To be effective and productive in the modern world, organisations should not rely solely on hierarchical organisation charts to explain how work gets done. Networks help highlight individual contributions

The image above is a classic traditional organisational hierarchy. A manager responsible for making the decisions, supported by supervisors, each leading a team of people tasked with carrying out the decisions.

One of the biggest flaws within hierarchies is the tendency to treat all individuals at the each level as identical. In the example above, we have a decision maker, a group of supervisors: the blue dots A, B and C), and a group of do-ers: the red dots 1 to 9. (Yes I’m back with the pictures of dots again – goes with the name…) There are all sorts of challenges to the effectiveness of this system, not least trying to operate in an environment that doesn’t observe the rules of hierarchies and let’s everyone make decisions. But that’s for another post… This one is exploring how a network makes it easier to identify individual contributions and raise productivity.

Let’s rearrange our dots as the actual network that functions within this organisation:

Image: organisation network

The numbers and letters represent the order in which each individual was hired. The organisation chart does not tell us anything is different between the first person hired or the last. But the social network does.

Teams A and B are highly inter-connected. Team C is not. Supervisor C has barely any connections out of his/her reporting line and team. And we could guess that hires 7 ad 8 were made by C. All have come from outside the organisation and have yet to build up their network. The most useful member of Team C is no.9 because they have direct connections into both other teams and can more easily tap into their knowledge and expertise. But most interestingly, they have a connection with their manager’s manager. I’d guess No. 9 is heir-apparent to C’s job. C should be planning their next career move.

No. 1 is the longest-serving hire and well connected but not as well-connected as newer employees. Looking at the connections, the manager (purple dot) must be a more recent hire than no.1 because they have made connections with No. 4 and No.6 so they are not averse to communicating direct with team members yet do not interact with no.1. No. 1 is on the way out. Their career at this organisation has peaked.

No. 6’s career is on the up. Connected with people in all three teams, connected to all three supervisors and connected to the manager. Even if No. 6 knows nothing, they have access to everyone who knows something. The alternative scenario is that they are the person who knows everything, and everyone seeks them out when they need help. Either way, 6 is highly valuable to this organisation. Yet the organisation chart would suggest they are just a junior role.

Organisation charts make it far too easy to lump everybody into a single group – the level they are currently placed at within a hierarchy. And if you are near the bottom, you are expendable because the larger number of people at your level, the bigger the assumption that you are easy to replace. Imagine the company needs to reduce headcount due to financial difficulties? The common method in large organisations is to simply require all teams to reduce their headcount by the same amount. So teams A, B and C each lose a person, facing demoralising uncertainty and disruption in the process. The more productive approach would be to eliminate Team C, but keep no.9 and move them into one of the other teams. You’ve reduced the headcount by the same number, saved a bit more money because Supervisor C would likely have been on a higher salary and not impacted the two higher-performing teams in the process.

image: comparing network connections

The image above visualises both approaches. On the left, the lowest performer from each team is removed. Look how sparse the connections now appear between the three teams. On the right, the lowest performing team is removed but the highest performer from within it is retained, and that isn’t the supervisor. The connections between the remaining individuals is much tighter, across the two teams. How much likelier is it that they will be able to support one another? None of this would have been evident by just studying an org chart that treats everyone at each level equally.

Of course this is a vast simplification of just one of the differences between networks and hierarchies. Hierarchies do have their benefits. They help us organise large volumes of information in ways that are simple to understand, making sense out of what would otherwise seem chaotic. But they do tend to create inequalities – it’s easier to reward the few at the top than acknowledge the many below – and their weakness is in failing to appreciate the messy realities about what is really going on. We are beginning to develop the tools to better understand and work within networks, enabling us to make sense out of the chaos without having to create a hierarchy in the process. Organisation’s that tap into this new found capability will out perform those that don’t.

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How the economy works…

Banking collapse

Embedded below is a great 30-minute video walking through the basics of how a capitalist economy works, how they can go wrong and what (ought to) work best to get them back on track, acknowledging that boom and bust cycles are somewhat inevitable…

[ba-youtubeflex videoid=”PHe0bXAIuk0″]

More on networks vs hierarchies


Creating a hierarchy based on total scores and overall ‘influence’ risks lowering the value of a social network because total contributions do not mean every individual contribution is a good one

An example to follow on from a recent post: Social networks do not need a hierarchy.

A lot of social networking tools are focusing on the use of scores, badges and ‘gamification’ to encourage participation and highlight the key players, the ‘influencers’. Personally, I’m not a fan. I’m all for awards representing a significant achievement. But becoming mayor of the local train station simply by ‘checking in’ more times than anyone else is not on my list of priorities. However I have to accept the evidence. Simple games and badges work in certain scenarios – they increase participation compared to similar systems without them. But as Steve Jobs once said:

Incentive structures work so be careful what you incentivise people to do. Because it can create all sorts of unintended consequences.

The following picture shows the points and status for two people who have responded to a question on a Microsoft technology forum. At first blush, who is likely to be the authoritative source?


Yes, the one on the left is me. Or rather, my SharePoint clone. I haven’t participated regularly on a tech forum since the 90s. If I had taken the screenshot a few minutes sooner, I had a far more impressive null point (say it in a fake French accent and think of Eurovision). It seems I’ve been awarded 5 points for answering a question. On the right is another Microsoft partner who is also an MVP – that’s a Microsoft Most Valued Professional, an award given for contributions within the Microsoft community. And he has a tub-thumping 5,645 points.

So who’s answer would you trust the most based on this information? It’s OK, I’m not offended. I wouldn’t pick me either on this basis. Naturally, that’s the point of this post…

The question being answered was to do with enterprise search. I answered the question in its entirety. 7 steps that could be easily followed. The other partner added a general comment and a link to his blog post related to the topic but not answering the specific question. It provided no extra information but will have given him some more points and link love for his web site to boot. And why wouldn’t he, that’s what people are being incentivised to do. (Side note: I’ve greyed out the identity because the person involved is very knowledgeable about SharePoint and his MVP status is well deserved.)

I have a strong technical background in enterprise search and SharePoint. But that was quite some time ago. Even if I’d been given a big badge for it at the time, it wouldn’t matter now. Because the search functionality has changed dramatically over the various version releases and plenty of others have since caught up with my knowledge and surpassed it. The only reason I decided to answer a question in a technical forum for the first time in over a decade is because the person’s question had turned up in a search result. I was checking some information, saw the question was nearly identical to what I was checking and that it had gone unanswered for over a week. So I decided to respond. Likelihood of answering another one in the near future? Not high. And the world will (hopefully) keep orbiting the sun.

All a social network needs is a mechanism for connecting people with knowledge to people with questions. In short, it just needs a damn good search engine. This is why Flickr is such a brilliant example. You don’t search through photographs based on the points awarded to people based on their contributions. Not unless you are a fan following a celebrity photographer. Search and tags help you find the type of picture you are looking for. We are insanely good at judging whether or not what we are looking at is what we need. If not, move on.

Will that stop us from using badges and points in social networks and communities? Of course not. People are naturally competitive (whether we admit it or not) and crave recognition. Some are more easily satiated than others through simple rewards and manipulation. And when the network is owned by an organisation, there is value in discovering who are the most frequent contributors. Microsoft’s MVP programme is well run and those rewarded deserve the credit given for their ongoing commitment to Microsoft technologies. They donate a lot of time to help others. But displaying high scores on individual questions risks lowering the value of a network by focusing on the hierarchy of badges rather than the content. The better solutions are those that allow thumbs-up/down on an individual item basis. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a grand total of 405,421 ‘thumbs-up’. What might matter is that you’ve got 10 thumbs-up for the question I need answering compared to no more than 2 thumbs-up for everyone else who answered it.

The power and beauty of a social network is that each individual connection between two nodes can be as valuable as the next one. Introducing a hierarchy risks losing that equality and weakens the system.

Related blog posts

Flickr image: Badge collection by Drew McLellan. As with the original post, kindly shared and no badges or hierarchy required to discover it

Being human trumps technology

Human - Robot

One prediction that divides opinion is the coming technology ‘Singularity’ – the point where computing intelligence is predicted to surpass human intelligence. I’m not a fan of the prediction. Not least because we still don’t fully understand how the organic brain works. To compare with manufactured technology based on raw processing power, speed and storage capacity feels fundamentally flawed.

Such predictions show a tendency to diminish the importance and value of human traits. Do emotions have no role to play? What sort of world would that create?

This was highlighted in an article yesterday – Why new technologies could never replace great teaching:

I cannot think of one single occasion when someone has stopped me to recall fondly about an inspirational and influential piece of computer software. And yet I get letters from former students eulogising over a teacher who changed the direction of their lives and without whom they would not be in the position they are today. That is the result of trust, about a relationship between the teacher and the child.

Nearly 10 years ago, I attended an analyst conference where the following comment was made:

A well implemented Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system can help increase sales by 6%. An experienced salesperson will outsell a novice by 40%. Ask a salesperson what features they want in a CRM and they will say, ‘help me sell more stuff’. Ask a manager, and they will come up with a long list of requirements to improve reporting. End result: less customer-facing time and fewer sales…

And yet still organisations will invest untold amounts of money to come up with a system to eliminate the need for people. Why the desire to devalue human abilities? Is it because some people are uncomfortable with the messy chaotic state that is human nature? Or a fear that perhaps luck plays a far bigger part in outcomes than we’d like to admit?

Whatever the reasons, the unpredictability of human emotions define what it is to be alive. Before trying to replicate the human brain, perhaps more technologists should first ask: why do we have a brain?

Back in 2005, I attended a lecture at the Royal Society titled ‘The Puppet Master: How the brain controls the body’, delivered by Professor Daniel Wolpert. The talk was focused on the following:

In the world of organic matter, what differentiates animals and plants? The ones with brains can move.

If the whole point of having a brain is to give us movement, is the predicted technological singularity missing the point? Because the focus seems not to be on making machines move. If anything, it’s to allow us to continue to exist without moving at all. Some progress.

The Puppet Master talk explored the role of our senses in helping make optimal decisions:

Movement is surrounded by uncertainty, noise, that affects and influences our senses. The criteria for making the best decision is not always obvious.

If noise influences and interrupts our senses, and our brains have to adapt to it in order to make optimal decisions about movement, why don’t our senses do a better job of filtering and reducing noise? It is probably because there are times when we need noise… Without it, parents probably wouldn’t wake up when the baby starts crying.

I love digital technology. It has democratised access to knowledge and helped flatten the world. As someone who does not have a trace of blue blood in their heritage, I consider that to be a wholly postive outcome. But it is important to also still appreciate what it is to be human. That there is value way beyond being able to process data.


Related post

Flickr image: ‘Human / Robot’ kindly shared by Emilie Ogez