Networks and Hierarchies—Holding the Tension —by Jinny Batterson
I’ve long been intrigued by the relationship between networks and hierarchies. When I recently did an online search for “networks versus hierarchies,” I came up with lots of current articles in economic and business publications about the relationship between these two forms of human organization. Much of it seemed to me to provide little practical help in structuring a real group or team. For example, a 2018 posting on chiefexecutive.net related that:
“The network structure must come together organically, depending on the unique conditions of the organization, and not be over-engineered at the risk of simply creating a supplemental hierarchy.”
Several articles discussed the merits of Niall Ferguson’s book The Square and the Tower, partly a historical review of alternating periods when, he suggested, either networks or hierarchies prevailed as social constructs. Some questioned whether technological changes such as the internet now favor networked organization. Per a pundit at econlib.org, “However, it is a fallacy to insist that just because the Internet is peer-to-peer, human groups necessarily must array themselves in that fashion in order to be successful in the current technological setting.”
As something of an egalitarian and even more a contrarian, I’ve mostly chafed at the hierarchical human groups I’ve participated in, just as much when I was, at least titularly, “in charge” as when I was an “underling.”
In the now-outdated data processing world that I inhabited for much of my paid work life, the earliest data structures were isolated files, often with one field as a “key.” Later, related files were grouped into “hierarchical databases,” with “parent” and “child” segments grouped into multiple levels. In order to be able to access any given segment, it was important to know all the relationships among segments. “Child” segments typically could be accessed only through their chains of parentage. Imagine my relief when the first “relational” databases appeared, with the capacity to search “across” in addition to “up” or “down.” I no longer know the innards of the various data structures that make up our current cyber-world—perhaps underlying it all are certain hierarchies of keys, but access is so rapid that the casual observer remains unaware.
Usually a description in words is easier for me to follow than a diagram. However, once a generation ago at a summer institute I was drawn to sketch a chalk picture of a series of adjoining “pyramid” triangles, linked in such a way that they made a pie shape. Instead of power being concentrated at a “top,” it now occupied a “center.” Although it was possible to go from the outer part of one pyramid through the center to the outer part of a different one, it was often quicker and easier just to traverse part of the outside. This “pyramid of pyramids” looked very much like a spider’s web.
My suspicion, based both on a long-term relationship with a caring but somewhat hierarchically-oriented male partner and on shorter-term experiences in a variety of organizations, is that preferences for organizational style are somewhat gender-linked. The females of the human species tend somewhat toward networks; males are typically more comfortable with hierarchy. Both types of organization are needed—holding one or the other up as a model for all interactions does not work well. The problem is learning to creatively hold the tension between appropriate situations for each…