Bring on the Egalitarian Workplace

Networked organizations—in which all employees share responsibilities and work as a group of equals—have a better chance of success than those with traditional hierarchies. Pro or con?

Pro: Toss Out the Job Description

The time for a management reset has come, one that’s not simply a matter of making leaders more effective or adopting the latest twist on how to engage employees. It must be a seismic change, a complete rethinking of what an organization’s objectives are and the way it can achieve them.

While hierarchies were the favored form of organizing in the past, they should not be the key design orientation in the next era of business. Hierarchies, characterized by tight controls, centralized decision-making, and clear-cut job descriptions, often alienate employees and promote an individualistic work mentality. Traditional management systems are increasingly a vanishing breed, no longer valuable or relevant in today’s increasingly human-capital-centric workplace.

As traditional hierarchies fall by the wayside, so should one of their key tools: job descriptions. Despite their widespread uses, job descriptions are more dysfunctional than helpful. They set boundaries, pigeonhole employees, and provide a convenient excuse for what not to do. Not only are they costly to develop and keep current, they constrain change and flexibility. The best alternative is to simply abandon them and create an egalitarian workplace of shared responsibilities.

While this might sound like a radical approach to many, it is the way most professional service and knowledge work firms have been successfully managed for decades. It’s also the approach of an increasingly large number of global organizations, including Google (GOOG), Netflix (NFLX), Nike (NKE), and W.L. Gore. A longtime leader in this "new" way of management is Nordstrom (JWN), a 110-year-old company operated according to one simple principle: "Use good judgment in all situations." Nordstrom’s legendary reputation for great service is achieved without job descriptions telling people what they should do.

Let’s be clear: The need for leadership will always exist. There will always be a need for visionaries, people who can influence others, and people who can execute. Otherwise, how would anything get done? The changes we’re calling for are in how we manage and lead. Today’s management approaches must highlight agility, emphasize adaptability, and focus on human capital as a source of competitive advantage. For organizations both large and small, this assures sustainable effectiveness—today and well into the future.

Con: There’s a Reason Hierarchies Exist

What a seductive notion! A workplace without bosses, where everyone contributes equally. It sounds good, even utopian, with echoes of a socialist workers’ paradise. And granted it’s been proven to work in limited, relatively contained settings such as self-directed work groups. But can it work on a large-scale basis, and will it be the wave of the future? I don’t think so.

Whether we like it or not, hierarchy is ingrained in our DNA. Parents are the original bosses, endowed with wisdom and power. As children, we learn to respect elders, community leaders, teachers, and people in positions of authority such that hierarchical relationships become as natural as breathing.

In organizations, hierarchy is more than just a human predisposition; it’s a practical necessity. The purpose of an organization is to mobilize diverse talents and abilities in order to produce goods and services. In the modern world, we have harnessed technology to multiply this output. But to do this, we need to divide up tasks, match them with the right people (since not all people have equal skills), and then integrate them for customers. Somebody has to provide the direction to make this happen effectively at every stage and level. That’s the role of the supervisor, manager, team leader, or executive. Without this guidance and decision function, we would have disorganization. Would you want to fly in an airplane with no designated pilot or be operated on by a medical team without a chief surgeon?

Embracing hierarchy, however, does not mean that bosses need to be heroes or despots; they can make decisions through engagement and consultation. Nor does it mean that we can’t leverage a network of resources. A "boundaryless organization" can facilitate networking. But boundaryless does not mean boundary-free where employees roam wildly without direction. Rather it means that the boundaries can be more permeable so that people can share information, resources, and ideas to make the whole enterprise more successful. Making this happen is never easy, but it can’t be done at all without leaders who have the authority to break the ties between groups and individuals who have different visions of what should be done. And at least for the time being, there is no better way to do this than through some version of a traditional hierarchy.

Opinions and conclusions expressed in the BusinessWeek Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of BusinessWeek, BusinessWeek.com, or The McGraw-Hill Companies.

Reader Comments

Erastus

That's a great analysis of the way foward in management. As ICT takes deeper roots in our organization and workers continue to acquire higher education levels matching those of collegues in management, there is need for a new approach and the line between them becomes creativity and imagination.

Ransome

I've worked with the two models. The team approach, like an old sailing ship with an all-knowing captain, has been the most productive for the company and everyone on the team and is a far superior model. Team members become cross-functional, continuously improving. Unfortunately with all the job hopping and lack of mentoring, true all-knowing captains (team leaders) are very rare. Teams sometimes confuse a flat organization with a democracy. There was responsibility, decision making, and accountability but little democracy on the sailing ships. Hierarchy has a big downside, development of department silos encumbered with micro-managing directors with differing agendas and visions of power that encompass the entire department. Each department becomes a mini-Union, and decision making is hindered. Learning occurs in a monoculture. Job description can be narrow.

Murli Advani

Todays work involves information, knowledge, and creativity.

You cannot replace a worker with another like corporations did when making switches or gadgets on the assembly (or almost) lines.

So we need managers who can manage (or leave them alone) creative workers.

Also creative workers do not like to be controlled--which is the favorite modus operandi of old managers. Managers need to be evaluated on their groups' performance. Like a football coach who just got fired (U of M), managers need to be fired (they are paper pushers mainly).

rick

There is nothing practical or necessary about hierarchy. Societies that flourished the longest have always been societies without hierarchy--no chiefs, no supervisors, no concentration of power. These societies would still be flourishing today were it not for the violent ravaging they experienced at the hands of hierarchically minded, power-hungry outsiders.

Justinw

I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Ashkenas' position. The position to toss out traditional hierarchy and the job description is far too simplistic a view on what it takes to drive meaningful change. This view is further perpetuated by the undeniable success of organizations like Google, but the reality is that they, too, have clear levels of management and leadership who rightfully spread accountability and leadership to all those who are willing to step up to the plate. The book The Starfish and the Spider espouses similar ideals, but the divide between ideals and the ability to bring about transformative change is simply what differentiates academia from the real world of business.

Whit Tice

There will be no one golden solution to apply across the board. As with many approaches, the extremes often do not universally apply.

The lack of job descriptions, flatter organizations, and flexible approach would likely fit better for organizational environments that are new, immature, or very rapidly evolving. With a lightning fast pace of change, constraining job descriptions may hold individuals back from taking action. Leadership is vital as mentioned here in driving forward principles that can be acted upon. With visionary approaches that allow for empowered action, many great things can be achieved.

On the other hand, hierarchies have their place. There are many, many companies that have long shown success through their structure. In market environments that need strict adherence to standards, requirements, policies, etc., hierarchies can help ensure top quality is always present. This does lead to longer time to market of course. Additionally, utilizing specialists or experts inside an organization or network, is natural. Not everyone can do everything. Along with that, it may not be cost, time or quality abiding to let everyone roam free, so to speak.

The right blend and balance for any one particular organization will depend on the pace of change in the industry, the capabilities of the employees, and the resources available to take action.
http://bit.ly/hfWoBK

Eric

In 1991 or so, Eliott Jacques wrote a piece in the Harvard Business Review titled "In Place of Hierarchy." It is an excellent business-centric discussion of why hierarchies are necessary as an enterprise business increases.

Squeezebox

I think this argument is really about the difference between an employee and a partner. Partners are creative, self-directed types who have a stake in the company. In the olden days, they were part-owners, but nowadays they can buy shares of the company in order to have skin in the game. Employees have always been hired hands who do what they're told in exchange for a paycheck. They need managers (preferably partner types) and to be told what to do. The trick is to put the partners in charge and not put too many layers of management in the partners' way.

AJ

Google is listed as a company that has done away with hierarchy, but that's patently false. As an ex-employee of the firm, I was there when scores of managers were eliminated and we were supposed to report to a single boss. This led to chaos and a boss facing a tsunami of demands. Google thankfully went back to its hierarchical model.

DanTe

How is this a "Pro" vs "Con"? When the Pro just spouts nothing but catch phrases? But it would make sense for the Pro side--about as much sense as thinking a brainless 50-year-old clerk has the drive and imagination to drive a company.

TD

There is probably truth to both sides, though my inclinations lie more with an egalitarian structure, mainly due to the style of management of the companies I have been employed. It has been my experience that those who gravitate towards management tend to be highly controlling individuals, whose need to direct the work that those who report to them eliminates the gains that occur in team-based organizations.

Now, my experience has largely been in Canadian old-line technology companies, which may explain their relatively poor performance on the world stage compared to U.S. counterparts.

PCW

Interesting debate with presumably the same goal of achieving excellence.
Excellence has and always will be a moving target. What was excellent will become good and then forgotten.

The means, to achieving sustainable excellence, is evolving from a focus on superior systems, things, pricing, speed, etc, where hierarchies worked best to a focus on creativity, spontaneity, and a need to achieve excellence from everyone at every opportunity. This new focus will demand less structure and fewer barriers between peoples and more collaboration among all people as equal partners to achieving excellence.

coach madison

All I hear is a bunch of whining about something that you possibly can repair in the event you werent too busy searching for attention.

Join the Debate

 

Participate More!

Please send us your ideas for new Debate Room topics. If you're an academic, association officer, or other industry expert and would like to write a Debate Room essay, send us a query. Questions? See the

BW Mall - Sponsored Links

Buy a link now!