In Defense of Hierarchy

Alpha Lo, one of the editors of The Open Collaboration Encyclopedia, writes an excellent blog about “open collaboration.” I mostly liked¬†his latest post, where he tries to define “open collaboration,” but I strongly disagreed with one particularly prominent premise. It’s something I see repeated over and over again,¬†often by people I respect, and it bothers me everytime I see it.

He says that open collaboration is not hierarchical.

This is both wrong and problematic. All forms of high-performance collaboration (open or not) are hierarchical. What differentiates open collaboration is that it’s not rigidly hierarchical.

Why the distinction? Because hierarchy is in fact a good thing. Everyone should not be equal in every context. Part of effective collaboration is about empowering people to do the things that they can do most effectively.

Hierarchical structures are a shortcut for doing this. We try to assign positions of formal power to people who are generally best suited to make good decisions. However, these choices will not be correct in all (or sometimes in any) contexts. In those cases, the challenge is finding ways to skillfully navigate these structures or to adapt them accordingly. The military is a great example of a system that tries to account for this flaw. It’s a rigidly hierarchical system that promotes people who know when and how to work around the system.

A network frame is not about getting rid of hierarchy. It’s about allowing the best form of hierarchy to emerge. It’s not only incorrect to frame it as being opposed to hierarchy, it’s problematic. Instead of worrying about hierarchy, we should be looking out for rigid structures, both explicit and implicit. The implicit structures are often the more problematic ones.

Some of these implicit structures stem from basic human dynamics. For example, there have been many studies showing that we tend to give agency to people who talk a lot, regardless of what it is that they’re saying. A system that does not acknowledge and attempt to counter this will run into the same problems that any traditionally hierarchical system has, even if it’s more “open” on the surface.

Wikipedia is a great example of this, as are most communities that use traditional online forums. Town hall meetings are a great face-to-face example of this. People are able to acquire implicit power in these communities simply by out-talking everyone else. Tools like Quora try to counter this by not unintentionally rewarding people who talk more than others. And, in imposing alternative structures, these tools introduce new problems.

This is where the rest of Alpha’s post resonates strongly with me. In describing how to build an open collaboration project, he talks about more participatory structures, prototyping and open feedback loops, diversity and empathy. These are all strategies that counter rigidity and that encourage the right kinds of hierarchy to emerge in the right moments.

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