Flexible, reconfigurable networks at work

Jon Husband, interviewed by Stowe Boyd, on his concept of “wirearchy”:

I have been involved in a long and intense process of study of the sociology of work, organizations and institutions for 40 years now. Today I believe that a major transition towards what some futurists call a “knowledge-based society” is underway. In that context what I call wirearchy represents an evolution of traditional hierarchy. I don’t think most humans can tolerate a lack of some hierarchical structure, primarily for the purposes of decision-making. The working definition I developed (and which has been ‘tested’ by a range of colleagues and friends interested in the issue(s) recognizes that the necessary adaptations to new conditions will likely involve temporary, transient but more intelligent hierarchy.

From his website, here’s Husband’s definition of wirearchy:

Wirearchy – a dynamic two-way flow of power and authority based on knowledge, trust, credibility and a focus on results, enabled by interconnected people and technology.

If I understand it right, wirearchy is more of a network that is much more fluid and flexible than an organizational hierarchy. It involves more knowledge exchange and development than a traditional org hierarchy would. This idea makes sense of a bunch of things I’ve been experiencing and thinking about lately.

Self-organized, self-managing challenge teams

At work we recently ran an innovation challenge with self-organized, self-managing teams made up mostly of individual contributors from the technology organization. I was skeptical whether it would work but the output from the three teams was amazingly well-done and innovative. Each team had a coach from outside technology, someone who knew the problem domain well. So they had a link to business reality.

The teams presented their solutions to the first challenge this Friday. The output was incredibly impressive — they came up with thoughtful, detailed, innovative approaches grounded in the reality of what our system needs to support. They did this without the usual management hierarchy and decision-making processes in place.

Someone deeply committed to a Dilbertian world would say “why of course they did a great job! They had no pointy-haired bosses involved!” That could be the case. I don’t think it argues for eliminating the hierarchy though but rather making the hierarchy more flexible and optional while encouraging intelligent ad hoc networks to develop. Those networks may or may not be hierarchical in structure.

Attachment to hierarchical position causes inefficiency

At the Colorado Technology Association’s Apex conference in November, Peter Sheahan of Changelabs proposed that attachment to ego causes inefficiency. When we get caught up in thinking that because of our position or reputation that we can’t do a particular thing or act a particular way, we get in the way of progress. We introduce friction.

This hit home to me, because as a vice president of my company (one of very many!) I sometimes think I shouldn’t have to write R code myself or develop a SQL query to get the data I need or spend the many days it often takes to figure out exact details of what the data my team and I are analyzing means. But that’s BS. I should and will do whatever I need to do to achieve the IQN Labs mission. If that means firing up Sublime Text with our latest R code, I’ll do it.

Rigid hierarchies encourage people to think of themselves as operating in a narrow capacity for an organization. Recently when a colleague moved on to a new company he told me one of the reasons he was moving was that people expected him to do things that were not his job to do. He was operating only in hierarchical mode. With wirearchy added to hierarchy, perhaps the work in the interstitial spaces of the organizational hierarchy is more likely to get done.

How do you encourage people to think outside their particular position and job description?

Sometimes you need hierarchy – The example of school group work

I hated when I had to do group projects for my PhD. The professors would often claim that these group projects were just like the real world – where you have to collaborate with other people.

True, but in the real world there are hierarchies so you have some sense who’s in charge. It’s absolutely not true that managers are generally the most talented and effective people but in some cases the promotion process works, and you end up with reasonably effective, knowledgeable people in leadership positions. They often have extra information about the business context you are working in and can guide work. This sort of recognized hierarchy is almost always absent in a group project aimed at completing a homework assignment. Often what happens is the person with the most knowledge and context does all the work, having no historical or official sway over the others.

Which makes me wonder about those challenge teams… how were decisions made and work allocated? This is something I’d love to investigate. I am wondering if having knowledge already of other people’s strengths and potential areas for contribution meant that unofficial hierarchies could develop. Or did work get organized and completed in more flat fashion?

I worked for Oracle in the late nineties in application development. At the time it was an incredibly hierarchically-aware place. I imagine it still is. The hierarchy mattered. It also mostly worked, at least where I was in the organization. That’s because above me I had a very effective manager who kept involved in the technological and business details of what we were doing while playing politics well both laterally and vertically upwards into the organization. Having the hierarchy in place made me more effective.

Matrix management

My team has grown by 320% this past year, from just myself to myself plus two full-time data scientists plus an intern who comes in one day a week. Both data scientists transferred from other parts of the organization, bringing with them plenty of institutional knowledge that will help the IQN Labs team succeed. One of them also brought with her ongoing responsibilities that don’t fall within the scope of IQN Labs. The manager she came from still has those responsibilities. I haven’t figured out exactly how we’ll work this situation but it seems to me the concept of “wirearchy” may help light a way through.

Connected intelligence

I’m thinking that wirearchies can be more intelligent than hierarchies because they potentially connect across longer distances. This makes me think of my own collaboration with product marketing at IQN. I probably spend as much time talking to the two people in that organization as I do talking to people within Technology. My conversations with product marketing produce guidance and insight, far more than my meetings within Technology, which are usually more operational in focus.

Just like in academic research, sometimes the long-distance interdisciplinary connections add the most value.

This is exciting because it follows along to many ideas that existed only in toddler form in my book Connect! I am looking forward to exploring more and testing it all out at work in 2015.


Links for January 15, 2012

The rise of the new group think [Susan Cain/New York Times].

Virtually all American workers now spend time on teams and some 70 percent inhabit open-plan offices, in which no one has “a room of one’s own.” During the last decades, the average amount of space allotted to each employee shrank 300 square feet, from 500 square feet in the 1970s to 200 square feet in 2010….

Privacy also makes us productive. In a fascinating study known as the Coding War Games, consultants Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister compared the work of more than 600 computer programmers at 92 companies. They found that people from the same companies performed at roughly the same level — but that there was an enormous performance gap between organizations. What distinguished programmers at the top-performing companies wasn’t greater experience or better pay. It was how much privacy, personal workspace and freedom from interruption they enjoyed. Sixty-two percent of the best performers said their workspace was sufficiently private compared with only 19 percent of the worst performers. Seventy-six percent of the worst programmers but only 38 percent of the best said that they were often interrupted needlessly.

I work in an open-plan office and I rather like it, mainly because my coworkers are fun and because my clean, small, mostly quiet work area is such a nice change from my sprawling, messy, mostly noisy house. We work on a puzzle together when we’re taking a break from work and wear headphones when we want uninterrupted time. I wonder, though, if I’d be more productive with a private office or even a cubicle. I don’t achieve flow as much I’d like at work. Not sure if that’s because the job is relatively new to me or because the work environment is an obstacle.

Hume, causation & science [Barry Ritholtz/The Big Picture]. “We humans love a grossly over-simplified narrative.” Determining when we can attribute causation to a correlation is one of the major challenges of research design and statistical analysis.

How to work from home like you mean it [Kevin Purdy/Fast Company]. I’m thinking of working one day a week at home to achieve some of that flow I’ve been missing. If I do, I’ll follow some of these tips so it doesn’t devolve into eight hours of Internet surfing.

Lack of interest and aptitude keeps students out of STEM majors [Olga Khazan/Washington Post On Small Business blog]. “A study released this week by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce found that recent graduates in computer science, mathematics and engineering all had unemployment rates below 9 percent (with the rates dropping below 6 percent among those who had some experience.) Conversely, the rates for graduates in architecture and the arts were 13.9 and 11.1 percent, respectively.”

What is college for? (Part 2) [Gary Gutting/The New York Times].

Concretely, students graduating from high school should, to cite one plausible model, be able to read with understanding classic literature (from, say, Austen and Browning to Whitman and Hemingway) and write well-organized and grammatically sound essays; they should know the basic outlines of American and European history, have a good beginner’s grasp of at least two natural sciences as well as pre-calculus mathematics, along with a grounding in a foreign language.

Students with this sort of education would be excellent candidates for many satisfying and well-paying jobs in, for example, sales and service industries, except for those that require highly specialized skills. From the standpoint of employment, high school graduates would have no need of college unless they wanted to be accountants or engineers, pursue pre-professional programs leading to law or medical school or train for doctoral work in science or the humanities. Apart from this, the only good reason they would have for going to college would be for its intellectual culture.

Compelling idea, but seems unlikely to happen because (1) our high schools are mostly incapable of providing such an education and (2) our culture is overly invested in the idea of college as the basic ticket to success in today’s economy. E.g.: D.C. may require college application for all [Joanne Jacobs].