Chart: What Gets Communicated
While not claiming that the information presented in the charts below is very scientific, I think there are a few nuggets of information to be gleaned if we reflect on how communication differs by organizational type. Anyone reading this via a network and who has gone to school or works in a traditional setting, notices the differences. Power and the direction in which it flows are clearly delineated in the hierarchical organization. This is, of course, by design. Having everyone understand their role and the amount of power if confers, allows the hierarchical organization to operate as a control system—one of its most important functions.
What’s interesting is, that over the last 15 years, with the birth and rapid evolution of the World Wide Web, we’ve been able to experience how communication differs in flat systems. It’s quite a change, isn’t it? I think what is notable, is that while network communication can have its sharp edges (think: YouTube comments), on the whole, it’s great for learning, for getting things done quickly, for innovating, for argumentation, and for the quick dissemination of ideas.
We are learning how to make the best of these sometimes-unruly network environments by building systems that promote more pro-social behavior such as using reputation systems (thumbs up, thumbs down), or by using techniques that allow for higher quality feedback and discourse. An example would be embedding a YouTube video into a blog where the commenting can then be handled in the blog itself, limiting the antisocial remarks found on larger, undifferentiated networks like YouTube. Another method would be using a simple, yet powerful, technique like ignoring trolls. Good system design lowers antisocial behaviors while increasing diversity of thought and the quality of discourse.
Another benefit of hierarchy-free communication is that it is more conducive to the reporting of bad or unpopular news, hence, it can be more informative and accurate. It can diminish group-think through dissent, argument and variety of opinion. Users are not muted by the political considerations created by rank. This type of communication is more divergent and heterogeneous, and often more honest (no need to tell the boss what he wants to hear), more democratic, more meritocratic, and importantly, as a system, more tolerant of insult. Hierarchical organizations can become paralyzed by dissent and difference of opinion. They can become fragmented, stalemated and toxic, with members feeling trapped, their ideas ignored. Frustration builds as members are left with few ways to express themselves. Open, flat systems, on the other hand, allow for people to freely disagree, to have vigorous debate without fear of retribution, and to come and leave the network as they please. Those who continually violate the group’s norms can be easily ignored or blocked. Group dynamics are based more on the quality of ideas than on title. Those who can, direct and lead the group through the quality of their ideas; those who can’t either step aside or leave. Certainly, both organizational systems have their advantages and disadvantages. Combining the best of both can be a viable alternative. Many of the most high-performing organizations are figuring this out.