Hierarchy

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Definition

Francois Tremblay

This definition comes from Francois Tremblay: "A hierarchy is any social system where control is used in a way that is both 1. systemic and 2. directed.


  1. The use of control must be systemic, that is to say, part of the system, not incidental to it. For instance, a man may mistreat his wife at an amusement park because he has been raised to believe that women are inferior. In that case, the hierarchy is not the amusement park, but sexism: the control was incidental to the amusement park as a system.
  2. The use of control must be directed, that is to say, from one specific person or group of people- the superiors- to another specific person or group of people- the inferiors. In the case of sexism, the superiors are the men and the inferiors are the women and intersexed."

(http://francoistremblay.wordpress.com/2008/10/01/why-hierarchies-are-immoral/)


Wikipedia

The definition of hierarchy on Wikipedia is also instructive:

"A hierarchy is an arrangement of objects, people, elements, values, grades, orders, classes, etc., in a ranked or graduated series. The word derives from the Greek ἱεραρχία (hierarchia), from ἱεράρχης (hierarches), "president of sacred rites, high-priest" and that from ἱερός (hieros), "sacred" + ἄρχω (arkho), "to lead, to rule". The word can also refer to a series of such items so arranged. Items in a hierarchy are typically thought of as being "above," "below," or "at the same level as" one another.

This is as opposed to anarchy where there is no concept of higher or lower items (or people) -- everything is considered equal.

The first use of the word "hierarchy" cited by the Oxford English Dictionary was in 1880, when it was used in reference to the three orders of three angels as depicted by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite.

Pseudo-Dionysius used the word both in reference to the celestial hierarchy and the ecclesiastical hierarchy. His term is derived from the Greek for 'Bishop' (hierarch), and Dionysius is credited with first use of it as an abstract noun. Since hierarchical churches, such as the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, had tables of organization that were "hierarchical" in the modern sense of the word (traditionally with God as the pinnacle of the hierarchy), the term came to refer to similar organizational methods in more general settings.

A hierarchy can link entities either directly or indirectly, and either vertically or horizontally. The only direct links in a hierarchy, insofar as they are hierarchical, are to one's immediate superior or to one of one's subordinates, although a system that is largely hierarchical can also incorporate other organizational patterns. Indirect hierarchical links can extend "vertically" upwards or downwards via multiple links in the same direction. All parts of the hierarchy which are not vertically linked to one another can nevertheless be "horizontally" linked by traveling up the hierarchy to find a common direct or indirect superior, and then down again. This is akin to two co-workers, neither of whom is the other's boss, but both of whose chains of command will eventually meet." (cited by http://www.bordalierinstitute.com/NeuralNetworkNaturePart1of3.pdf)

Description

In Ortegrity: Bridge to a Synergic Future by Timothy Wilken, hierarchy is described in the following way:

"Hierarchy is a vertical system with many levels of organization. Those with greatest responsibility and authority occupy the higher levels. Hierarchy creates a feeling of difference or individuality. Individuals within the system see each other vertically, “He is over me.” “I work under John.” “He is way up in the company” “She is the lowest one on the totem pole.”

Hierarchy is humanity's oldest organizing strategy. It was born in the jungle, was nurtured in the cave, grew up in the tribe, blossomed with feudalism, and today dominates nearly all the corporations, institutions, governments, and militaries of earth. Hierarchy is often experienced as the chain of command or pecking order. It is most formalized in military combat.

In business organizations, hierarchy is often experienced as an extension of the personalities of those individuals who founded the company. The operating policies of the company are a reflection of the values of the individual founders. Individuals with similar values are often selected to continue the company. So we see the primary concerns of a hierarchy are the goals of those few individuals that control it. This is why American companies have individual decision making, and individual responsibility. Hierarchy has a particulate focus because goals are particular to the individuals who create them.

Hierarchy’s focus on the individual does lead to the stimulation of individual innovation, creativity, and originality. This leads to the development of a few individual stars who tend to dominate the company. Individuality has its strengths — one of which is rapid decision making. One individual can always decide much quicker than a group."


Characteristics

Jordan Greenhall:

"By breaking down the problem into smaller groups separated by well defined roles and responsibilities and connected with a clear vertical decision-making scheme, hierarchical organizations have been able to scale into tens and hundreds of thousands of members and even millions in the case of some military hierarchies.

The advantages of scale have led the hierarchical model to dominate the organizational landscape for thousands of years, but this approach is not without major flaws.


Decreasing returns to scale

While hierarchies can scale — they do not do so smoothly. That is, while a very large hierarchy can do many things more effectively than a small tribal organization, they do so at a cost:

  • A limited view of the whole, combined with artificially constrained roles and responsibilities and increasingly burdensome processes results in each new member of the organization providing less and less value — particularly in the form of collective intelligence (e.g., innovation).
  • At the same time, as the organization scales more and more resources are required just to maintain the structure of the organization itself. Administration, bureaucracy and middle management are a necessary evil of even the most well run hierarchical organization.


The result is a decreasing return to scale that seems to cap the effectiveness of a hierarchical organization regardless of the number of members it puts to work.


Decreasing mutualism

As a result of intrinsic information and power asymmetry, hierarchies provide a large number of different niches for anti-mutual self-interested behaviour (aka win-lose or “extraction”). At their worst, these are top down tyrannies where concentrated power and information results in extensive value extraction. But even relatively well managed and equitable hierarchies are plagued by “defection” behaviours of all sorts throughout the organization.


Diffusion of responsibility

The movement of authority and responsibility from the edge towards the center results in a large number of failures ranging from the cliche “that’s not my department” (indifference and inefficiency) to the chilling “I was just following orders” (systemic immorality). Nonetheless, the advantages of hierarchical organizations have outweighed their weaknesses and resulted in their being the peak predator of our economic landscape." (https://medium.com/deep-code/the-future-of-organization-b26219e5fc95#.g3j5cgjk3)


Discussion 1: Hierarchy in Peer Production

Hierarchy for Autonomy

In true peer to peer networks, Heron writes, the role of hierarchy is to enable the spontaneous emergence of 'autonomy in cooperation':

"There seem to be at least four degrees of cultural development, rooted in degrees of moral insight:

(1) autocratic cultures which define rights in a limited and oppressive way and there are no rights of political participation;

(2) narrow democratic cultures which practice political participation through representation, but have no or very limited participation of people in decision-making in all other realms, such as research, religion, education, industry etc.;

(3) wider democratic cultures which practice both political participation and varying degree of wider kinds of participation;

(4) commons p2p cultures in a libertarian and abundance-oriented global network with equipotential rights of participation of everyone in every field of human endeavor."

Heron adds that "These four degrees could be stated in terms of the relations between hierarchy, co-operation and autonomy.

(1) Hierarchy defines, controls and constrains co-operation and autonomy;

(2) Hierarchy empowers a measure of co-operation and autonomy in the political sphere only;

(3) Hierarchy empowers a measure of co-operation and autonomy in the political sphere and in varying degrees in other spheres;

(4) The sole role of hierarchy is in its spontaneous emergence in the initiation and continuous flowering of autonomy-in-co-operation in all spheres of human endeavor

From all of the above, we can conclude that hierarchy does not disappear in peer to peer processes, but that it changes its nature. Hierarchy, or authority ranking as it is called by Alan Fiske, takes on new forms such as peer governance, servant leadership, multistakeholdership.

To enlarge my point (4) about the role of hierarchy in p2p cultures:

Hierarchy here is the creative leadership which seeks to promote the values of autonomy and co-operation in a peer to peer association. Such leadership, as in the free software movement, is exercised in two ways. First, by the one or more people who take initiatives to set up such an association. And second, once the association is up and running, as spontaneous rotating leadership among the peers, when anyone takes initiatives that further enhance the autonomy and co-operation of other participating members.

This also mirrored in the action research method of co-operative inquiry. Someone launches an inquiry, co-opts participating co-inquirers, and initiates them into the methodology. Once they have internalized it, a genuine peer inquiry is under way with different members at different times taking spontaneous leadership initiatives which raise key issues for peer decision-making and thereby take the inquiry in fruitful directions.

Meritocratic Leadership

Felix Stadler:

"The openness in open source is often misunderstood as egalitarian collaboration. However, FOSS is primarily open in the sense that anyone can appropriate the results, and do with them whatever he or she wants (within the legal/normative framework set out by the license). This is what the commons, a shared resource, is about. Free appropriation. Not everyone can contribute. Everyone is free, indeed, to propose a contribution, but the people who run the project are equally free to reject the contribution outright. Open source projects, in their actual organization, are not egalitarian and not everyone is welcome. The core task of managing a commons is to ensure not just the production of resources, but also to prevent its degradation from the addition of low quality material.

Organizationally the key aspects of FOSS projects are that participation is voluntary and – what is often forgotten – that they are tightly structured. Intuitively, this might seem like a contradiction, but in practice it is not. Participation is voluntary in a double sense. On the one hand, people decide for themselves if they want to contribute. Tasks are never assigned, but people volunteer to take responsibility. On the other hand, if contributors are not happy with the project’s development, they can take all the project’s resources (mainly, the source code) and reorganize it differently. Nevertheless, all projects have a leader, or a small group of leaders, who determine the overall direction of the projects and which contributions from the community are included in the next version, and which are rejected. However, because of the doubly voluntary nature, the project leaders need to be very responsive to the community, otherwise the community can easily get rid of them (which is called ‘forking the project’). The leader has no other claim for his (and it seems to be always a man) position than to be of service to the community. Open Source theorist Eric S. Raymond has called this a benevolent dictatorship.[11] More accurately, it is called the result of a voluntary hierarchy in which authority flows from responsibility (rather than from the power to coerce).

Thus, the FOSS world is not a democracy, where everyone has a vote, but a meritocracy, where the proven experts – those who know better than others what they are doing and do it reliably and responsibly – run the show. The hierarchical nature of the organization directly mirrors this meritocracy. The very good programmers end up on top, the untalented ones either drop out voluntarily, or, if they get too distracting, are kicked out. Most often, this is not an acrimonious process, because in coding, it’s relatively easy to recognize expertise, for the reasons mentioned earlier. No fancy degrees are necessary. You can literally be a teenager in a small town in Norway and be recognized as a very talented programmer.[13] Often it’s a good strategy to let other people solve problems more quickly than one could oneself, since usually their definition of the problem and the solution is very similar to one’s own. Thus, accepting the hierarchical nature of such projects is easy. It is usually very transparent and explicit. The project leader is not just a recognized crack, but also has to lead the project in a way that keeps everyone reasonably happy. The hierarchy, voluntary as it may be, creates numerous mechanisms of organizational closure, which allows a project to remain focused and limits the noise/signal ratio of communication to a productive level.

Without an easy way to recognize expertise, it is very hard to build such voluntary hierarchies based on a transparent meritocracy, or other filters that increase focus and manage the balance between welcoming people who can really contribute and keeping out those who do not." (http://publication.nodel.org/On-the-Differences)


Hierarchy in Distributed Networks

By David de Ugarte.

Excerpted from the book: The Power of Networks


“The capacity to transmit is the capacity to bring people together, to summon up the collective will, to act. The capacity to transmit is a precondition for political action.


And in every decentralised structure, such a capacity really is exclusive to very few nodes. In distributed networks, by definition, nobody depends exclusively on anyone else in order to send his message to a third party. There are no unique filters. In both kinds of network “everything is connected to everything,” but in distributed networks the difference lies in the fact that any transmitter doesn't have to always go necessarily through the same nodes in order to reach others. A local newspaper doesn't have to sell its version of an event to an agency journalist who has just come to the area, and a local politician in a village doesn't need to convince all his regional and provincial colleagues in order to reach his fellow party members in other parts of the country. Don't distributed networks have political forms of organisation then? The thing is that we have become so used to living within decentralised power networks that we tend to confuse the organisation of representation with the organisation of collective action. The perversion of decentralisation has reached such a degree that “democracy” has become synonymous with electing representatives – that is, filter nodes.


What defines a distributed network is, as Alexander Bard and Jan Söderqvist say, that every individual agent decides for himself, but lacks the capacity and opportunity to decide for any of the other agents.


In this sense, every distributed network is a network between equals, even though some nodes may be better connected than others. But what is important is that, within such a system, decision making is not binary. It's not a matter of “yes” or “no”. It's a matter of “to a greater or lesser degree.”


Someone makes a proposal and everyone who wishes to join in can do so. The range of the action in question will depend on the degree to which the proposal is accepted. This system is called a pluriarchy, and, according to the same authors, it makes it impossible to maintain the fundamental notion of democracy, where the majority decide for the minority whenever there are disagreements. Even if the majority not only disagreed with a proposal, but also acted against it, it wouldn't be able to prevent the proposal from being carried out. Democracy is in this sense a scarcity system: the collective must face an either/or choice, between one filter and another, between one representative and another.


It is easy to see why there is no conventional “direction” within pluriarchic networks. But you can also see that it is inevitable that groups will arise whose aim will be to bring about a greater ease of flow within networks. These are groups that specialise in proposing and facilitating group action. They are usually inwards rather than outwards-oriented, although in the end they are inevitably taken for representatives of the whole of the network or, at least, for an embodiment of the identity that defines them. Members of these groups are netocrats within each network – in a certain sense, network leaders, as they cannot make decisions but can use their own careers, their prestige, and their identification with the values of the whole or a part of the network to call for group action.


What happens when a distributed structure clashes with a decentralised one?


The decentralised structure has the upper hand when it comes to mobilisation capabilities and speed. In recent years, there have been plenty of examples of rulers who have thought that controlling traditional filters (i.e. press and TV) would be enough to condition the citizenship by ensuring that only the most convenient pieces of news reached them. However, the emergence of the new information networks led them to come up against thousand of citizens who had taken to the streets. In some cases (Philippines, Spain, etc.), it has led them to resign. But what matters most is not so much the result of those demonstrations as what they were symptoms of.


Thousands of pages have been written trying to fathom where the power of text messages, the electronic “word of mouth”, lies, but that is really only the tip of the iceberg. The truth is that these cyberthrongs would have been unthinkable in the absence of a new distributed mode of communication.” (http://deugarte.com/gomi/the-power-of-networks.pdf)


Hierarchy in Decentralized Networks

David de Ugarte:

“Hierarchies necessarily appear in every decentralised structure. The higher we are in the information pyramid, the less we will depend on others to receive information and the more possibilities of transmitting it we will have. The version of an event given by a world press agency will reach every last corner of the planet, whereas that given by the local press – even if it's located in the same place where the event is happening – will hardly cross its closest borders, even if the version given by the local press is completely different, and superior to, that given by the global agency. The statements made by the general secretary of a political party will reach all party members through internal networks, but those made by a village politician will only reach as far as the village boundaries. The capacity to transmit is the capacity to bring people together, to summon up the collective will, to act. The capacity to transmit is a precondition for political action.


And in every decentralised structure, such a capacity really is exclusive to very few nodes.


In distributed networks, by definition, nobody depends exclusively on anyone else in order to send his message to a third party. There are no unique filters. In both kinds of network “everything is connected to everything,” but in distributed networks the difference lies in the fact that any transmitter doesn't have to always go necessarily through the same nodes in order to reach others. A local newspaper doesn't have to sell its version of an event to an agency journalist who has just come to the area, and a local politician in a village doesn't need to convince all his regional and provincial colleagues in order to reach his fellow party members in other parts of the country.” (http://deugarte.com/gomi/the-power-of-networks.pdf)

Discussion 2: Generalities

Why hierarchies are inefficient and undesirable

Hayekian information problems, Groupthink and lack of transparency

Here are Kevin Carson's thoughts on why hierarchies are inefficient[1]:

1. Hayekian information problems: The people in authority who make the rules interfere with the people who know how to do the job and are in direct contact with the situation. The people who make the rules know nothing about the work they’re interfering with.

2. Groupthink: Hierarchies systematically suppress negative feedback on the results of their policies. As R.A. Wilson said, nobody tells the truth to a man with a gun.

3. Opacity from above: A major theme of "Seeing Like a State," by James Scott, is that states try to make populations “legible” from above, and hence more amenable to control. We might add a “seeing like a boss” corrollary about the analogous phenomenon inside hierarchies. The problem is that such legibility is very costly, if not impossible, to achieve.

Conclusion... [G]iven that hierarchies are artificially prevalent because of state policies, and those who work within them do so as a necessary evil resulting from artificial constraints on the range of competing opportunities, the hierarchy resembles a microcosm of statist society, in which the agency and knowledge problems of authority internally mirror the irrationalities created by state authority in society at large.

Carson expands further on his ideas about hiearchy in his book Organization Theory.

Gary Hamel: First Let's Fire All The Managers

Gary Hamel's thoughts from an HBR (Harvard Business Review) article[2]:

A hierarchy of managers exacts a hefty tax on any organization. This levy comes in several forms. First, managers add overhead, and as an organization grows, the costs of management rise in both absolute and relative terms. A small organization may have one manager and 10 employees; one with 100,000 employees and the same 1:10 span of control will have 11,111 managers. That’s because an additional 1,111 managers will be needed to manage the managers. In addition, there will be hundreds of employees in management-related functions, such as finance, human resources, and planning. Their job is to keep the organization from collapsing under the weight of its own complexity. Assuming that each manager earns three times the average salary of a first-level employee, direct management costs would account for 33% of the payroll. Any way you cut it, management is expensive.

Second, the typical management hierarchy increases the risk of large, calamitous decisions. As decisions get bigger, the ranks of those able to challenge the decision maker get smaller. Hubris, myopia, and naïveté can lead to bad judgment at any level, but the danger is greatest when the decision maker’s power is, for all purposes, uncontestable. Give someone monarch-like authority, and sooner or later there will be a royal screwup. A related problem is that the most powerful managers are the ones furthest from frontline realities. All too often, decisions made on an Olympian peak prove to be unworkable on the ground.

Third, a multitiered management structure means more approval layers and slower responses. In their eagerness to exercise authority, managers often impede, rather than expedite, decision making. Bias is another sort of tax. In a hierarchy the power to kill or modify a new idea is often vested in a single person, whose parochial interests may skew decisions.

Finally, there’s the cost of tyranny. The problem isn’t the occasional control freak; it’s the hierarchical structure that systematically disempowers lower-level employees. For example, as a consumer you have the freedom to spend $20,000 or more on a new car, but as an employee you probably don’t have the authority to requisition a $500 office chair. Narrow an individual’s scope of authority, and you shrink the incentive to dream, imagine, and contribute.

How Hierarchy hinders Complexity

From the article:

COMPLEXITY RISING: FROM HUMAN BEINGS TO HUMAN CIVILIZATION, A COMPLEXITY PROFILE. by Yaneer Bar-Yam.

Excerpted from the article at http://necsi.org/projects/yaneer/Civilization.html


1.

In human hierarchies the collective behavior must be simple enough to be represented by a single human being.


2.

"The history of human civilization reflects a progressive increase in the complexity of large scale behaviors. Early civilizations introduced a few relatively simple large scale behaviors by use of many individuals (slaves or soldiers) performing the same repetitive task. Progressive specialization with coordination increased the complexity of large scale behaviors. The industrial revolution accelerated this process which continues till today. When the complexity of collective behaviors increases beyond that of an individual human being then hierarchical controls become ineffective."


3.

"Distributed control over collective behaviors can result in larger complexity of the collective behavior than the behavior of any single individual. Networks are also quite distinct from independent individuals. Networks require that coordination of the behavior of groups of individuals are achieved by mutual influences."


Main thesis:

"Hierarchical organizations are designed to impose correlations in human behavior primarily through the influence of the hierarchical control structure. In an ideal hierarchy all influences/communications between two "workers" must travel through a common manager. As the complexity of collective behavior increases, the number of independent influences increases, and a manager becomes unable to process/communicate all of them. Increasing the number of managers and decreasing the branching ratio (the number of individuals supervised by one manager) helps. However, this strategy is defeated when the complexity of collective behavior increases beyond the complexity of an individual. Networks allowing more direct lateral interactions do not suffer from this limitation" (http://necsi.org/projects/yaneer/Civilization.html)


Detailed argument:

"This section focuses on internal interactions that at any one time give rise to collective behaviors. In human organizations coordination occurs because individuals influence each others' behavior. The influence is often called control. It is not necessarily coercive control, though coercion may be an aspect of control. The objective of this section is to understand the relationship between control structure and the complexity of collective behavior.

Real human hierarchical organizations are not strict hierarchies, they contain lateral interactions that enable control to bypass the hierarchy. However, by focusing on an idealized control hierarchy it is possible to understand the nature of this structure. Such a focus will help in understanding the nature of dictatorships and hierarchical corporationsthe relationship between these control structures and complex collective behavior. In an idealized hierarchy all communication, and thus coordination of activities, is performed through the hierarchy.

To concretize the discussion, consider two paradigmatic examples: military force and factory production. Conventional military behavior is closer to our discussion of coherent behavior. Similar to coherent motion, in the military the behavior of an individual is simplified to a limited set of patterns. The behavior patternssuch as long marcheshave a high degree of repetition and thus can have impact on a large scale. Then, many individuals perform the large-scale behaviors coherently. While this model continues to apply to some examples of modern military activity, the diversity of actions of a modern military makes this model better suited to understanding ancient armiesRoman legions, or even U. S. Civil War armies.

While the actions of the military are designed to have impact on a large scale, they must still be performed in response to specific external conditions. As the conditions change, the actions must also be changed. There is need for a response mechanism that involves communications that can control the collective behaviors. Such a response generally involves direct action by the control hierarchy.

A conventional industrial production line also simplifies the behavior of an individual. Each individual performs a particular repetitive task. The effect of many individuals performing repetitive tasks results in a large number of copies of a particular product. This repetition increases the scale of impact of an individual's behavior. However, unlike coherent behavior, the behavior of different individuals is not the same. Instead, the activities of the individual are coordinated to those of othersthe coordination exists so that the larger-scale behavior can arise. The coordination means that the behaviors of different individuals, while not the same, are related to each other. When compared to the coherent motion, this increases the complexity and decreases the scale, but much less so than would be the case for fully independent individuals.

The need to ensure coordination of different individuals when the collective actions being performed have an inherently higher complexity increases the demands upon the control hierarchy. In particular, it is significant that the behaviors of all parts of a production line must be coordinated, even though actions being performed are different.

The similarities and differences between the factory and the military models are relevant to an understanding of the role of hierarchical control. A military force, a corporation, or a country have behaviors on various scales. At larger scales, many of the details of the behavior of individuals are not apparent. Intuitively, a control hierarchy is designed to enable a single individual (the controller) to control the collective behavior, but not directly the behavior of each individual. Indeed, the behavior of an individual need not be known to the controller. What is necessary is a mechanism for ensuring that control over the collective behavior be translated into controls that are exercised over each individual. This is the purpose of the control hierarchy.

A hierarchy, however, imposes a limitation on the degree of complexity of collective behaviors of the system. This can be understood by considering more carefully the processes of coordination. The hierarchy is responsible for ensuring coordination of various parts of the system. Lower levels of the hierarchy are responsible for locally coordinating smaller parts of the system and higher levels of the hierarchy are responsible for coordinating the larger parts of the system. At each level of the hierarchy the actions to be coordinated must be transferred through the controller. Thus, the controller's behavior must itself reflect all of the impacts that different parts of the system have on other parts of the system. This implies that the collective actions of the system in which the parts of the system affect other parts of the system must be no more complex than the controller. In human hierarchies the collective behavior must be simple enough to be represented by a single human being.

In summary, the complexity of the collective behavior must be smaller than the complexity of the controlling individual. A group of individuals whose collective behavior is controlled by a single individual cannot behave in a more complex way than the individual who is exercising the control. Hierarchical control structures are symptomatic of collective behavior that is no more complex than one individual. Comparing an individual human being with the hierarchy as an entirety, the hierarchy amplifies the scale of the behavior of an individual, but does not increase its complexity.

The existence of lateral influences counters these conclusions with respect to real human organizations. These lateral controls are similar to the conceptual networks that are used to model the interactions between neurons in the brain. Distributed control over collective behaviors can result in larger complexity of the collective behavior than the behavior of any single individual. Networks are also quite distinct from independent individuals. Networks require that coordination of the behavior of groups of individuals are achieved by mutual influences." (http://necsi.org/projects/yaneer/Civilization.html)


The historical development of complexity

From the article:

COMPLEXITY RISING: FROM HUMAN BEINGS TO HUMAN CIVILIZATION, A COMPLEXITY PROFILE. by Yaneer Bar-Yam.

Excerpted from the article at http://necsi.org/projects/yaneer/Civilization.html


"In recent years human organizations that emphasized central control have changed or given way to other structures with greater distribution of control. This includes political organizationsthe systematic conversion of dictatorships in Central and South America to more democratic systems, the fragmentation of the soviet bloc and replacement of government controlled economies in communist countries with market based economiesand the restructuring of hierarchical corporations in western economies to involve decision teams and process based managerial strategies. Many of these changes result in systems where collective behaviors arise from partially independent subgroups of the system and lateral "networked" influences. Even when control hierarchies continue to exist, the lateral interactions through group decision making processes have become more prominent. To understand this more fully, consider the history of civilization and the complexity of environmental demands upon each civilization and the individuals that comprise it. The progressive historical increase of complexity means that organizations that do not change do not survive. This is descriptive of the nature of the transition that is under way. The complexity of demands upon collective human systems have recently become larger than an individual human being. Once this is true, hierarchical mechanisms are no longer able to impose the necessary coordination of individual behaviors. Instead, interactions characteristic of networks are necessary.

In a review of history, the development of hierarchies can be seen to enable progressively more complex behaviors. Two factors are important, progressively smaller branching ratios and lateral interactions. Both will be described below. There are also two complementary aspects to this development, complexity at the scale of the individual and complexity at the scale of the collective. In general, these complexities are not directly related. In the context of a control hierarchy, however, the complexity of individual behaviors increases with increasing complexity of collective behavior. The complexity/diversity of individual behaviors does not directly explain the difficulties experienced by hierarchies. The complexity of collective behaviors does explain the difficulties experienced by control hierarchies, since controlling these behaviors is the role of central control.

From earliest recorded history until the fall of the Roman empire, empires replaced various smaller kingdoms that had developed during a process of consolidation of yet smaller associations of human beings. The degree of control exercised in these systems varied, but the progression toward larger more centrally controlled systems is apparent. As per our discussion of the difference between independent individuals and coherent behaviors, this process was driven by military force.

Indeed, during the time of ancient empires, large-scale human systems executed relatively simple behaviors, and individuals performed relatively simple individual tasks that were repeated by many individuals over time to have a large-scale effect. This observation applies to soldier armies, as well as slaves working in agriculture, mines or construction. The scale of ancient empires controlled by large armies, as well as the scale of major projects of construction would be impressive if performed today. The scale of activity was possible, without modern sources of energy and technology, because of the large number of individuals involved. However, the nature of the activity was simple enough that one individual could direct a large number of individuals. Thus, hierarchies had a large branching ratioeach controller was in charge of a large number of individuals.

As time progressed, the behavior of individuals diversified as did the collective tasks they performed. The increasing diversity of individual behaviors implies an increase in the complexity of the entire system viewed at the scale of the individual. Consequently, this required reducing the branching ratio by adding layers of management that served to exercise local control. As viewed by higher levels of management, each layer simplified the behavior to the point where an individual could control it. The hierarchy acts as a mechanism for communication of information to and from management. The role is also a filtering one, where the amount of information is reduced on the way up. Conversely, commands from the top are elaborated (made more complex) on the way down the hierarchy. As the collective behavioral complexity at the scale of an individual increases, the branching ratio of the control structure becomes smaller and smaller so that fewer individuals are directed by a single manager, and the number of layers of management increases. The formation of such branching structures allows an inherently more complex local behavior of the individuals, and a larger complexity of the collective behavior as well.

The most dramatic increases in the complexity of organizational behavior followed the industrial revolution. The use of new energy sources and automation enabled larger scale behavior in and of itself. This, in turn, enabled higher complexity behaviors of human systems because the amplification of the behavior to a larger scale can be accomplished by the use of energy rather than by task repetition.

At the point at which the collective complexity reaches the complexity of an individual, the process of complexity increase encounters the limitations of hierarchical structures. Hierarchical structures are not able to provide a higher complexity and must give way to structures that are dominated by lateral interactions. A hierarchy serves to create correlations in the behavior of individuals that are similar in many ways to the behavior of a network. The hierarchy serves as a kind of scaffolding. At the transition point, it becomes impossible to exercise control, so the management effectively becomes divorced from the functional aspects of the system. Lateral interactions that replace the control function have been present in hierarchical structures, however, they become necessary when the hierarchical control structure fails due to the high complexity of collective behavior. The greater the dependence of a system on the hierarchy, the more dramatic the changes that then take place.

The lateral interactions achieve the correlations in behavior that were previously created by management. As such mechanisms are introduced, layers of management can be removed. Over the course of the transition, the hierarchy exercises control over progressively more limited aspects of the system behavior. Some of the behavior patterns that were established through the control hierarchy may continue to be effective; others cannot be since an increase in system complexity must come about through changes in behavior. Among these changes are the coordination mechanisms themselves, which must be modified. It could be argued that this picture describes much of the dynamics of modern corporations. Upper levels of management have turned to controlling fiscal rather than production aspects of the corporation. In recent years, corporate downsizing has often been primarily at the expense of the middle management, resulting in a reduction of payroll and little change in production. Hierarchical control has been replaced by decision teams introduced by corporate restructuring; and the reengineering of corporations has focused on the development of task related processes that do not depend on hierarchical control.

Using this argument it is straightforward to understand why control structures ranging from communism to corporate hierarchies could not perform the control tasks required of them in recent times. As long as the activities of individuals were uniform and could be simply describedfor example, soldiers marching in a row, or manufacturing workers producing a single product by a set of repetitive and simple activities (pasting eyes on a doll, screwing in bolts)control could be exercised. The individual's activities can be specified once for a long period of time, and the overall behavior of the collective could be simply described. The collective behavior was simple; it could be summarized using a description of a simple product and the rate of its production. In contrast, central control cannot function when activities of individuals produce many products whose description is complex; when production lines use a large number of steps to manufacture many different products; when the products vary rapidly in time; and the markets change rapidly because they themselves are formed of individuals with different and rapidly changing activities.

It is useful to distinguish networks that coordinate human activity from markets that coordinate resource allocation. Markets are a distinct type of system that also results in an emergent collective behavior based upon the independent actions of many individuals. Markets such as the stock exchanges or commodity markets coordinate the allocation of resources (capital, labor and materials) according to the dynamically changing value of their use in different applications. Markets function through the actions of many agents (individuals, corporations and aggregate funds). Each agent acts according to a limited set of local objectives, while the collective behavior can coordinate the transfer of resources across many uses. Markets are distinct from networks in that they assume that the interactions among all agents in regard to a single resource can be summarized by a single time-dependent variable which is the value of the relevant resource.

In conclusion, the implication of the disappearance or dramatic changes in centrally controlled human organizations is that the behaviors of collections of human beings do not simplify sufficiently to be controlled by individuals. Instead of progressive simplification from an individual to larger and larger collections of individuals, we have the oppositean increasing complexity that is tied to an increasing complexity of the demands of the environment. This makes it impossible for an individual to effectively control collective behaviors. While specific individuals have been faulted for management errors that have led to corporate failures, the analysis performed here suggests that it is inevitable for management to make errors under these circumstances.

Finally, from an academic point of view, for those interested in developing an understanding of the political, social or economic behavior of the human civilization or its various parts, there are several important consequences. The high collective complexity implies that as individuals we are unable to fully understand the collective behavior. This does not mean that insights and partial understandings are impossible. However, the existence of many different scales of behavior in a complex system implies that two traditional approaches to modeling or considering such systems cannot be effective. The first assumes that the collective behavior can be understood solely from large scale interactions; specifically, a description of the interactions between nations. The second assumes that the collective behavior can be understood by decomposing the system into its smallest elements and developing models based upon individual behavior. A complete specification of each of the physical components of a system would describe also the collective system behavior, however, such a complete specification is impossible. Mapping or simulating all individual behaviors is ineffective as an approach to gaining understanding. This reductionist view, dominating much of the scientific thought, does not take into consideration the significance of large scale correlations essential to the complex collective behaviors we would like to understand. Effective models must build descriptions that account both for the many scales of behavior of a system and the interplay between environmental and system properties. In addition, it is the dynamic behavior patterns of the system that must be the focus of the understanding."


Hard vs. Soft Social Hierarchies

Manuel de Landa:

"We talk of "social strata" whenever a given society presents a variety of differentiated roles to which not everyone has equal access, and when a subset of those roles (i.e. those to which a ruling elite alone has access) involves the control of key energetic and material resources. While role differentiation may be a spontaneous effect of an intensification in the flow of energy through society (e.g. as when a Big Man in pre-State societies acts as an intensifier of agricultural production ), the sorting of those roles into ranks along a scale of prestige involves specific group dynamics. In one model, for instance, members of a group who have acquired preferential access to some roles begin to acquire the power to control further access to them, and within these dominant groups criteria for sorting the rest of society into sub-groups begin to crystallize.

"It is from such crystallization of differential evaluation criteria and status positions that some specific manifestations of stratification and status differences -such as segregating the life-styles of different strata, the process of mobility between them, the steepness of the stratificational hierarchies, some types of stratum consciousness, as well as the degree and intensity of strata conflict- develops in different societies." (quoted from: {7} S.N. Eisenstadt. Continuities and Changes in Systems of Stratification. In Stability and Social Change. Bernard Barber and Alex Inkeles, eds. (Little Brown, Boston 1971). p. 65)

However, even though most societies develop some rankings of this type, not in all of them do they become an autonomous dimension of social organization. In many societies differentiation of the elites is not extensive (they do not form a center while the rest of the population forms an excluded periphery), surpluses do not accumulate (they may be destroyed in ritual feasts), and primordial relations (of kin and local alliances) tend to prevail. Hence a second operation is necessary beyond the mere sorting of people into ranks for social classes or castes to become a separate entity: the informal sorting criteria need to be given a theological interpretation and a legal definition, and the elites need to become the guardians and bearers of the newly institutionalized tradition, that is, the legitimizers of change and delineators of the limits of innovation. In short, to transform a loose accumulation of traditional roles (and criteria of access to those roles) into a social class, the latter needs to become consolidated via theological and legal codification." (http://doug.pbwiki.com/GWP+Chapter+2)


Hierarchy is driven by fear and insecurity

Jeff Vail:

"One of the seeds of hierarchy is the desire to join a redistribution network to help people through bad times—crop failures, drought, etc. Chaco Canyon, in New Mexico, is a prime anthropological example of this effect. Most anthropologists agree that the Chaco Canyon dwellings served as a hub for a food redistribution system among peripheral settlements. These peripheral settlements—mostly maize and bean growing villages—would cede surplus food to Chaco. Drought periodically ravaged either the region North or South of Chaco, but rarely both simultaneously. The central site would collect and store surplus, and, when necessary, distribute this to peripheral settlements experiencing crop failures as a result of drought. The result of this system was that the populations in peripheral settlements were able to grow beyond what their small, runoff-irrigated fields would reliably sustain. The periodic droughts no longer checked population due to membership in the redistributive system. The peripheral settlements paid a steep price for this security—the majority of the surplus wasn’t redistributed, but rather supported an aristocratic priest class in Chaco Canyon—but human fear and desire for security made this trade-off possible." (http://www.jeffvail.net/2008/02/hierarchy-must-grow-and-is-therefore.html)


Hierarchy as a function of surplus production

Jeff Vail:

"The psychological impetus toward growth results in what I consider the greatest growth-creating mechanism in human history: the peer-polity system. This phenomenon is scale free and remains as true today as it did when hunter-gather tribes first transitioned to agricultural “big-man” groups. Anthropologically, when big-men groups are often considered the first step toward hierarchal organization. When one farmer was able to grow more than his neighbors, he would have surplus to distribute, and these gifts created social obligations. Farmers would compete to grow the greatest surplus, because this surplus equated to social standing, wives, and power. Human leisure time, quite abundant in most ethnological accountings of remnant hunter-gatherer societies, was lost in favor of laboring to produce greater surplus. The result of larger surpluses was that there was more food to support a greater population, and the labors of this greater population would, in turn, produce more surplus. The fact that surplus production equates to power, across all scales, is the single greatest driver of growth in hierarchy.

In a peer-polity system, where many separate groups interact, it was not possible to opt-out of the competition to create more surplus. Any group that did not create surplus—and therefore grow—would be out-competed by groups that did. Surplus equated to population, ability to occupy and use land, and military might. Larger, stronger groups would seize the land, population, and resources of groups that failed in the unending competition for surplus. Within the peer-polity system, there is a form of natural selection in favor of those groups that produce surplus and grow most effectively. This process selects for growth—more specifically, it selects for the institutionalization of growth. The result is the growth imperative." (http://www.jeffvail.net/2008/02/hierarchy-must-grow-and-is-therefore.html)


Four intellectual errors in fighting hierarchy

Elena Jordan & David Vercauteren:

" We can identify at least four.

1) To psychologise the desires of preminence. "In discussions, in debates, one should never psychologise, that is to say: one should never ascribe a difficulty to the intentions or weakness of a person. It is always necessary to remain technically around the problem discussed without ever going back to psychologising interpretations"[5].

This general warning of Isabelle Stengers is especially true for power struggles. Insofar as their object is the way in which a person, in the group, acquires an ascendancy, or seems to acquire it, it is tempting to read into it an effect of personality: but this is the best way to not understand or change anything there.

2) To ideologise conflicts that result from it. This mistake is symmetrical to the previous one: attributing the process of vertical differentiation not to the personality of the one who differenciates, but to the political line that he embodies. There, often, the properly “militant” affect re-appears, through a language inherited from 1905: if so and so betrayed the egalitarian ideal of the group, it is because he always was, wholly and truly, a social traitor or a Stalinist.

"I am convinced", wrote Guattari, “that phoneticians, phonologists and of semanticians will trace back to this event (1903-1917) the whole crystallization of a set of linguistic features and ways - always the same ones - to hammer out stereotyped formulas regardless of language from which they’re borrowed"[6]. Always the same ones, thus, a sideswipe of the specificity of the situation that creates this power struggle.


3) To naturalise the hierarchy, and its antidotes. To regard the hierarchy as natural, nothing comes easier: one can do it unconsciously (all our socialisation, from childhood to the company, through the school, is hierarchical), or deliberately, like a provisional concession, in the organisation of the group, in the order of the world: let us accept chiefs temporarily, since they are everywhere, but let’s work to gradually move towards equality.

However this conceals a second naturalisation, no less frightening than the first: believing that the good will and moral qualities of a band of friends of justice will be enough to get rid of the hierarchical fold is bound to fail. Not only because good feelings are likely to not withstand time, but because, like psychology, and like ideology, they crush (and are crashed on) a basic axiom - a group is more than the sum of its parts, as nice as these might be.

4) To substantialise power. This mistake underlies all the others. It is the belief that power is an attribute that distinguishes those who possess it (dominant) from those who are deprived of it (dominated), whereas we know at least since Foucault that power is a relationship, exercised before being possessed, and therefore requiring a dominated no less than a dominant: "This is the shifting foundation of relations of forces, that relentlessly give rise to, by their inequality, some states of power, but these are always local and unstable, mobile. [...] And "the" power in what is permanent, repetitious, inert, self-reproducing, is nothing but the overall effect that emerges from these mobilities , the sequence that builds upon each of them and seeks to fix them in return”.

Substantialising power therefore entails a reversal of the order of causes: it means focusing on the consequences, knowing the asymmetrical positions of each other in a group, and ignoring the mechanisms and (necessarily collective) history that produced them." (http://self-org.blogspot.com/p/anti-hierarchical-artifices-for-groups.html)

More Information

  1. Five part essay by Jeff Vail: The Problem of Growth: if Hierarchy is unsustainable because it relies on growth, how can we promote Rhizome structures?
  2. Authority Ranking, the anthropological social dynamic described by Alan Page Fiske
  3. Heterarchy
  4. Holon and Holarchy
    1. Why Self-Organized Networks Will Destroy Hierarchies, Francois Tremblay
    2. First Let's Fire All The Managers, Gary Hamel, Harvard Business Review