Friday, June 20, 2008

Non-hierarchical? or a mai-baap sarkar?

Guillermo Nugent, a professor of Sociology in Peru says this of Latin America:
In Latin America we “sense” the ruler to be a father figure, and the ruler “senses” his power as if the country he rules were his own hacienda. The army and church hierarchy are powerful models of untouchable power and customs have more weight than laws. We aren’t democracies. Why is this? What can help us explain it?

How do organizations structure themselves? In what professor Nugent explains above in the case governments is a lack of democracy due to a mai-baap sarkar (a father figure). However, we in India, have a "democracy" and a "mai-baap sarkar". More closer than that, we are all part of organizations, at a professional level, at a personal level in working for development in marginalized India. So how do organization structures work? Everyone understands the professional structure with a top-down CEO to worker structure. Then there are the more esoteric, idealistic, egalitarian all-are-equal organization sans all hierarchies.

A tree-structured organization is one in which every member except one has a unique superior. The exception is "at the top" and has no superior. A non-hierarchically-structured organization is one in which the superior-subordinate relationship does not exist at all.

What are the problems with a tree-structured organization? At first glance:
  • information is not equally available to everyone in the organization
  • people not involved in the daily working of the organization make bulk of the decisions
  • superior-subordinate relationship leads to unequal distribution of power/status
  • compartmentalizes the members of the organization
Decentralizing decision making which leads to increasing workers' commitment to the organization's goals is a way to mitigate the above problems. Solutions in this line eliminate the tree structure and replace it with a group of equal members. These are "collectives" or "participatory democracies", in which the formal structure of the organization is no longer defined by a set of roles, but by a set of procedures that allow the group to function efficiently in an egalitarian way, such as rules for job rotation and group decision-making. Inequalities in influence and specialization of skill or knowledge are regarded as harmful, and are specifically avoided.

For such non-hierarchical organizations to work, some or all of the following conditions should hold:
  • The organization is small
  • The environment is unpredictable, the task complicated, and calls for innovative solutions
  • The members are motivated by principles and goals and values of the organization and not by money or power
  • All members have the same and equal knowledge of the workings of the organization
  • The members understand and have a personal commitment to non-hierarchical structures.
In traditional organizations, inequality is used as an incentive, and therefore an egalitarian structure may be less motivating for some individuals.

[Notice the parallel with competition here. Some might argue that inequality among competitors can be an incentive to improve in the skill being competed for. Whereas, in an egalitarian structure, there is no such inequality. Therefore, without a personal commitment to a non-competitive ideology, promoting it in an adhoc fashion is most likely to fail.]

According to [Mansbridge, 1973] and [Kanter, 1972], a common problem for non-hierarchical groups is that small disagreements tend to expand and involve the whole membership. Group meetings become tediously long, debating matters that are relevant only to a few people. To avoid this observation, the organization needs a barrier to catch the smaller problems before they spread to waste time and cause division.

The primary point in the non-hierarchical model is that there is no unity of command. In a classical system, with only one superior, no member has conflicting instructions. But in the non-hierarchical systems, a member might be asked to follow decisions of several other members, which may be mutually inconsistent. Even though this violates the principle of unity of command, the organization will be able to function very efficiently by mutual discussion.

Members will be able to make voluntary adjustments given they have sufficient communication with each other. To achieve an egalitarian organization we will need to require that every member communicate directly with the exact same number of others. [A simple version of this would be to have one common list and every member communicates with every one else. The rationale behind all this communication requirement is that the requirement of an egalitarian organization is an equal knowledge shared amongst all members.]

Any thoughts? Please write back to


Ravi Kandikonda said...

Great essay! I would like to know what you think about the geographical spread of the organization. I think it plays a very important role, especially the challenges that it introduces. Its probably a lot easier if the non-hierarchical organization were to be in just one building or one large room in a fixed geo-location. You do say that 'the organization needs to be small' as one of the conditions for the non-hierarchical organizations to work but what if the 'small' organization is spread over a large geographical area?


amit sesham said...

Clear analysis, Nice post! There are actually organizations that function like this (mostly in the startup world, where the streamlining of intra-org interaction/coordination costs is not an overwhelming issue, in most professional services, and to an extent, in environments where ultra-specialized people work on topics where their creativity should not be "managed" - labs, and the like).

My question to you - are there aspects of "hierarchy" that you could delve into further here, to make this model of "group governance, via shared values" more tight?

For instance, even in egalitarian organizations where decisions are by consensus, and there is not this unique tree (or even a bushy cluster) structure, there could be a need for some innate hierarchy in steady state - since new members will join the org, w/o the complete skillset that it takes to excel in the generalist roles of the org (or a thorough working knowledge of the prior decision-making habits, experience/data/processes that the org has used to build its "unique capabilities"). In this case, it becomes necessary to have a hierarchy for mentoring... absent which the new people would spend ALL time learning instead of contributing, and at a deep level, would lack practical credibility in their day-to-day operations, for their decision-inputs to carry heft. And mentoring is actually a soft (palatable?) form of hierarchy (no?).

Also, to ravi's post, I don't think geographic spread matters if all the folks included in the org are "extreme practitioners" in their field, and can stay focused on a shared goal. This whole mentoring hierarchy will be facilitated by colocation though.

Fork-Spoon-Knife said...

very well written analysis. But the question is whether a truly egalitarian organisation is possible and efficient use of resources or even feasible given the trappings of human nature?

Subramaniam Viswanathan said...

Vinod, below, are many disconnected thoughts here rather than detatched thoughts. Cogito sumere potum alterum - I think I'll have another drink.
To be the devil’s advocate (if that makes sense – since your thoughts are intended to be detatched), I am not a big fan of the totally egalitarian model. Be it a startup environment, a creative environment (say a band), there will always tend to be one or some people more inclined to lead than others. Amit highlights this as well, i.e c.f mentoring. Similar to the mentoring problem, there are usually people who are more inclined to opine than others, also, some are more adept at steering general perception of the mass in one direction or another, while others tend to not topple the applecart and will go along with the general public…. Disconnect.
More later?

EM said...

Thanks for the link :)
My comments, rather clarifications:

1.'problems of a tree...': These are problems that are stopping a tree-structured org from achieving what?

2. The 2nd condition under the second set of bulleted points: I have to say, I disagree. Again, the environment encompasses myriad of mini-envs. Not all of them are unpredictable.

3. Para on '...[Mansbridge...': I agree on the last statement.

4. General comment: What I seem to gather from the post is that 'non-hierarchs' are 'not-for-profit' and 'hierarchs' are 'for-profit'. I fail to recollect (at this moment) any non-hierarch that is a 'for-profit' org. Would you kindly share some examples, if you know of any?

5. Is there more to the post? :)


Anonymous said...

How does one deal with group members who want to dominate and demand certain members take a break? The group has become cliquish and divided.

Anonymous said...

It is simply magnificent phrase