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Org Charts are cages
How graph-theoretic methods can improve organisational meaning-making
“At the very heart of the power relationship, and constantly provoking it, are the recalcitrance of the will and the intransigence of freedom” — Michel Foucault
“what is commonly called a 'message' is in fact a text whose content is a multilevel discourse” — Umberto Eco
The organisation chart, first conceived by railroad engineer Daniel McCallum in 18541, describes one organisational network, and only one.
It describes the network of formal authority within an organisation: the hierarchal relationship between subordinates and their superiors: who has power over whom.
What it does not capture is:
who the real leaders are (because leadership and authority is different)2
how information flows through the organisation
who is collaborating with whom to get work done
who or what is preventing work from getting done
how collective computations and decisions are made
While it is of course important to understand the chain of formal authority: who can sign-off budgets, who can approve a promotion or pay rise, who can fire whom, etcetera, it is highly problematic to base an organisational design on such a limited and totalising monocategory.
Historically, the org chart served a very distinct purpose: to maintain discipline as the explanation on the pictured chart makes crystal clear:
“All orders from the Superior officers are communicated in the above order, from superior to subordinate to the point desired; thereby securing despatch in their execution and maintaining proper discipline without weakening the authority of the immediate superior of the subordinate controlled by the order thus transmitted. Each individual, therefore, holds himself responsible only to his immediate superior.”
While it may have been useful in the 1850’s to prevent deviation from objectives by constricting an individual’s freedom within an “iron cage” of bureaucracy3, it is certainly counterproductive today. In today’s organisations, the imperative is not the subjugation of workers to authority, but rather the mobilisation of minds to tackle tough challenges through autonomous collaboration.
By rendering graphs4 of communication and collaboration relationships, rather than formal authority hierarchies, a much more useful picture of an organisation emerges. Let’s look at a couple of examples.
Dynamic org structures
Morning Star is a highly successful Californian tomato processor that has managed to dispense with job titles and formal hierarchies altogether.
The graph shown above is Morning Star’s version of an ‘org chart’. What it shows is a network of commitments: who has committed to help whom — in writing5. Each node is an individual (names have been removed). The colours represent regions. The graph is electronically generated and changes dynamically as work commitments change and evolve, enabling the organisation to constantly improve and adapt.
The graph below is an example of Organisational Network Analysis (ONA) which diagnoses the informal networks that thrive inside organisations6. ONA can reveal how work really gets done, in spite of formal authority.
How it works:
Employees identify who they most regularly communicate with to get work done
They then classify the reason(s) for that communication. These might include categories such as problem-solving, information, inspiration and/or sign-off, etcetera
Then they rank how critical each of these people is for getting their work done
The resulting graphs are like an X-ray of how an organisation ticks. It shows where cliques or silos have formed. It identifies who the influential informal authorities are — the go-to people who make things happen. It also highlights ‘blockers’ — those ineffectual authorities that everyone works around.
On a macro scale, it can highlight inherent fragility: where just one or two people act as connecting points between clusters. If these people leave or get sick then collaboration between the clusters, say customer service and marketing teams, for example, falls apart. Conversely, it can show healthy robustness where redundancy of connections means the system will not collapse if one or two people leave.
Why it is important
In the language of visual semiotics, these charts and graphs are called signs. A sign is anything that has meaning. Signs can be interpreted as what they are (denotatively) and what they suggest (connotatively)7. An org chart denotes the authorisation chain (who can sign-off what). But it also implies a system of obedience where an employee’s responsibility is only to their immediate superior (a bureaucracy).
We ought to be very careful about what sign systems we use in organisations and consider the connotations that they generate. The wrong signs can work against us very easily.
On the other hand, graph-theoretic methods can help us visualise and find meaning in the hidden communication and collaboration patterns that permeate organisations. They can also be used to enable dynamical organisational structures, like Morning Star’s.
I’ll be diving deeper into graph theoretic approaches to organisational development in future transmissions. Please subscribe here:
In addition to Dr. Hilary Armstrong’s excellent paper referenced below, Rob Cross et al’s article, “The Collaborative Organization: How to Make Employee Networks Really Work” offers another good example of ONA in action.
For a very deep dive, then Organizational Network Analysis: Auditing Intangible Resources by Anna Ujwary-Gil is excellent.
Image credits - all images are from the articles referenced in the footnotes
See Caitlin Rosenthal’s excellent Big data in the age of the telegraph about the history of this beautiful document.
We all know of people with formal authority who fail to lead. Heifetz suggests authority can be divided into two forms: formal and informal. Formal authority refers to the various powers of the office while informal authority refers to the power to influence others’ behaviour and attitude beyond compliance. In Heifetz’s construction, leadership is a practice that some people do some of the time: a verb, not a job role. See Heifetz, R. A. (1994). Leadership without easy answers. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Weber, M. (1958). The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. New York: Scribner.
Morning Star structures their organisation around Colleague Letters of Understanding (or CLOU). Each employee is responsible for crafting their own CLOU, in collaboration with their key colleagues. See The Colleague Letter of Understanding: Replacing Jobs with Commitments
This example is taken from the paper, “Leading for Purposeful Collaboration” by Dr. Hilary Armstrong