From hierarchy to networks, can we write a road map?

Catherine Howe’s blogpost Networks, Change and Culture sparked some discussion on Twitter. Michael Coughlin, Executive Director at the Local Government Association, asked:

“How [can we] manage the simple, purposefulness of ‘command structures’ giving way to complexity of networks?”

It’s an interesting and relevant question for the discussion we’re about to start here on the skills required for open policymaking. Here are five quick thoughts:

  • Maybe we don’t need to manage it, just try to encourage it. I think this shift may be something inherently slippery and behavioural, and that we aren’t able to get hold of it, certainly not through the command and control mechanisms we’re trying to get away from. If it’s got a Change Management Board, it means it isn’t changing.
  • Some people are already working very well in networks, but those networks are being maintained as a personal side-project alongside the hierarchical and bureaucratic nonsense. One part of the shift is understanding how we liberate them from the day job, or rather make the day job understand that process is subordinate to network management.
  • What is the right balance between hierarchy and network? We can’t make the same sell of network working to everyone, because we’ll still need accountants, and meetings serviced, and decisions recorded. Not everyone on the team can be the libero (to use a football analogy, sorry Catherine), so how can we make the hierarchy-network shift not seem like the shaft for those who don’t get to do cool network stuff?
  • I’m increasingly beginning to think that the real challenge is at the strategy/action interface, where middle management lives. Top managers often get it in a big hand-wavy way, frontline staff are often already doing it in a “scratching my itch” way, but there is no connective drive at the interface where lots of little itches being scratched meet lots of waving hands.
  • This isn’t just our problem. Every industry and organisation is being challenged by it, but I’m not sure that we in the public sector are looking widely enough for our learning and examples.

Published by Anthony Zacharzewski

Anthony Zacharzewski was one of the founders of Demsoc in 2006. Before starting work for Demsoc in 2010, he was a Whitehall civil servant and a local government officer.

8 replies on “From hierarchy to networks, can we write a road map?”

  1. Bit nervous of commenting in amongst the intellectual heavyweights but here are some things I have noticed which might be relevant learning for larger organisations wanting the agility that smaller groups have:
    1. Clear values – in plain English help networked people work at a distance but as a community (a sort of ‘virtual team’)
    2. Working/ living values – so transparency over progress and learning is vital especially if the project is about increasing transparency and engagement (tricky with politics I know). We need more pioneers working in this way. I can only think of Patchwork but I suspect there are more projects that could be made case studies.
    3. Decisions and budgets pushed as far from senior decision makers as possible is my suggestion – so that front line workers have the most ability to use their networks to solve/ prevent problems and a new expectation that this is what they do. (Interestingly I find policing a bit more like this than other organisations – the ‘office of constable’ might be a model for a front line in social work/ nursing etc)
    4. Understanding the competencies and capabilities of middle/ senior managers in this ‘new world’
    5. Recognition that culture is stronger than structure – you can’t change behaviour by restructuring
    6. Evaluate the networked workers skills – how and why did they develop them, what makes them effective etc

    Just some suggestions..sorry they are a bit ‘crayons out’ Em x

  2. Hi there, Totally agree with Emma’s point about values – articulated and evidenceable shared values are the glue that hold this stuff together. A discussion of values is how we shift culture – if we can then put those values into practice.

    Also agree with Anthony (apart from the football reference) but here is the thing: PICK UP THE PACE PEOPLE.
    Networks move and change far faster than hierarchical organisations can and while other industries are facing the same challenges they are embracing radical change by accepting that some organisations will fail and fall away. Are we able/willing to do the same in the Public Sector?

    Managing these changes in the sense of controlling them is going to be impossible because we don’t know what will work – and that’s why we need to see greater levels of collaboration because the only way to keep up is collaborate more openly and more often.

    Connecting the right people and groups together is vital – but are our existing hierarchical organisations best placed to do this? And if not then how can we make this happen? If we had time to let this emerge or if we were prepared to see more organisations fail then yes we could step back and see what balance is naturally struck between networks and hierarchies – but I am not sure we have the luxury of waiting when internet years are like dog years – 7 times faster than the real world which already changes faster than the public sector


  3. This is a fascinating discussion. I think Anthony’s suggestion of the necessary co-existence of networked and hierarchical ways of working is vital to explore in more depth. What sorts of functions can be networked? Do these functions strictly map onto job roles – or do we all need to have a mix of dynamic and networked-working, and delivery of consistent core services in our roles?

    In the public sector it’s not only the accountancy, meeting servicing etc. that we’ll consistently need, but we also need to be able to guarantee continued delivery of frontline services as consistently at possible*. To use a software metaphor: the interface of all these services needs to stay relatively consistent, even if the underlying structures and components that make them happen are constantly changing (and even the accountancy or meeting minutes can become more networked with the right tools and working practices). There is work to do to keep the interfaces consistent, and one of the challenges of networked working is both embracing change, and embracing consistency at once.

    On another line of thinking, one of the things that has struck me in looking at how academics organise and do or don’t collaborate is the impact not of culture of structure, but of career incentives. A core motivator of action is what can secure an individual either job security, the next development in their career, or for those working secure waged work, the next contract. This is not a cynical motivation: it tends to make rational sense, but it is something that tends to be a factor in decisions over the value of networked collaboration or not. For example, in academia, the role of Research Assessment Frameworks in setting career incentives, and the way those are shaped by citation metrics, has a significant impact on whether people collaborate on papers with others.

    What are the similar incentive structures at work in the public sector, and are there ways to challenge, disrupt or reshape these to support more networked working or sharing?

  4. Great discussion guys.
    In my world, the problem with hierarchy comes when we attach importance to the levels i.e. higher = more important. This problem occurs in organisations as well as other forms of hierarchy, such as the natural policy hierarchy of a public sector organisation.
    The ‘golden thread’ policy mantra may implore the NASA floor-sweeper to believe that she is helping to send a rocket to the moon, but in reality we human actors tend to be shorter and more narrowly-sighted. Nothing wrong with that, it’s undeniably and irresistably human, and I passionately believe that one of the roles of great policy-making is to act as a vessel to carry those values and outcomes that the organisation and its actors can align to, as suggested by others here. And we can make a start by embracing the logical hierarchy of policy and not mistaking logical hierarchy for importance. A more rational approach, commissioning collaborative policy projects with logical rigour and determination, and embracing many of the wise thoughts of other contributors to this thread, will enable us policy wonks to be part of the solution.
    And, sadly, poor policy making really does reinforce the negative connotations of hierarchy. All too often the corporate plan is sovereign and ‘owned’ by the senior management and corporate policy peeps while a coherent policy response to a local failing community is just a bit too hard to do and down the hierarchical chain to bother with. So the leaders cling to our espoused high-level priorities, the front-line continues to struggle on, the researchers gather data and the policy-writers sit waiting with wagging tails for the next policy bone to be chucked our way.
    So I respectfully suggest that Hierarchy is not the problem – mistaking logical order for importance is!

  5. Bullet 2 of the post (liberating people from the day job or spreading the understanding [within the organisation] that process is subordinate to network management) reminds me of a recent conversation with a friend.

    She gets the power of networks and knows that a fair bit of work goes into maintaining them and she invests quite a bit of time doing this (on the side) but she’s struggled to explain to her manager the value this extra work adds. They simply didn’t have a common vocabulary for discussing this. Thinking about it afterwards, it occurred to me that it wasn’t so much a problem of quantifying its value- she could point to a number of people whose jobs or projects she made easier and more effective- it was that her organisation didn’t have a framework for valuing non-tangible contributions.

    As an individual contributor (as opposed to a people manager), she was expected to deliver a tangible, discrete objective. In such an organisation, even if you could convince your boss to let you make your networking activities a key part of your day job, you probably wouldn’t as you’d be at a disadvantage when it came to end-of-year review time because your organisation simply has no way of valuing such work. It’s the very reverse of the problem that Anthony cites as a potential problem- making the “hierarchy-network shift not seem like the shaft for those who don’t get to do cool network stuff?”

    I think that as our efforts in this space develop, we’ll need to build and iterate a framework for measuring value alongside it. At a minimum such a framework would have to incorporate “enabler points” (points for connecting colleagues or partners in order to meet a certain project or organisation objective) and would require organisations to utilise 360 degrees assessments more widely.

    Much longer comment than I’d intended!

    1. The November issue of Harvard Business Review is relevant to this discussion. There’s an article by John Kotter that challenges the idea that it should be either hierarchy or network. He suggests organisations should be establishing dual operating systems: A ‘networklike structure devoted to the design and implementation of strategy’ alongside the traditional hierarchy. The network is populated by ‘volunteers’ from throughout the hierarchy

      HBR have a webcast about it here

      To be honest I think you can see this already happening on a small scale (at least in my organisation) but Kotter is clear that the network is not a ‘tiger team’. He quotes some interesting research in the webinar about the increased productivity of ‘volunteers’ which also feels familiar.

      Let me know if you’d like more info

  6. Who’d have thought such a simple question would unleash this outpouring of considered, valuable and stimulating ‘crayons in’ (!) writing/thinking. Lots of great thoughts already, but to add and/or fuel further….

    I have found that to be effective as drivers of change, espoused values benefit from being described, as simply as possible, in terms of the behaviours that would be observed were they to be ‘lived’. This effect is magnified if leaders at all levels of an organisation strive to model those behaviours, thereby demonstrating (as well as reinforcing) the attitudes that underpin the values.

    The shift (managed, encouraged or just emergent) towards a system that values and has a greater proportion of network-oreinted activity, in my experience, requires the participants to be extraordinarily mindful of and sophisticated in their use of language, to express extraordinary ideas, visionary ways and alternative futures to those who don’t, can’t or won’t see them.

    Seeing outcomes – and the organic and sometimes almost uncontrollable manner in which they can be secured – as the absolute priority, and constantly and unflinchingly expressing that and pursuing them, in conjunction with the above points, has a disproprionately powerful impact on the quality of the relationships that bind networks of people together.

    It’s all really, really complex, complicated and difficult in the real world, away from a computer screen!

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