The non-avoidable hierarchy in system perspective

To follow the development of modern organizational design is to witness a perpetual attack on the idea of the hierarchical organization. It has been accused from a great variety of perspectives and every new generation has taken the aim of breaking down its vertical boundaries. Instead they have a new revolutionary alternative design just waiting around the corner. These alternatives includes heterarchies; that is, systems whose components interact in such a way that none of them is excluded from the decision process on an organizational basis.

The hierarchical organization has been accused of many things. As a first and foremost vertical structure it has managers at the top and workers at the bottom. The top is the head (headquarters!) and at the bottom are the hands. Between are several layers translating orders, making corrections, measuring outputs, providing   materials   and reporting to the top regarding final results. The workforce are divided in superiors and subordinates with high respectively low status. High status employees have their career ladders while low status workers have nothing. When rewards are based on position in the hierarchy the only thing that counts is vertical advancement up the ladder. Furthermore, people are paid for their position, not for their contribution to the organization. Too often hierarchies in general are associated with stiff bureaucracy and pertinent malfunctions such as slow response time, rigidity toward change and internal alienation.

In spite of all criticism, one thing is sure — the hierarchical design of various kind of organizations will continue to exist. Hierarchies exist because leaders exist. As long as certain persons resolve conflicts, set direction, allocate resources and step forward as leader of an organization in the face of the outside world, hierarchies are unavoidable.

Our surroundings, both natural and artificial, is arranged in a hierarchical order. We grow up in the family hierarchy, go to school in the school hierarchy. Later, we possibly join the army hierarchy from the bottom or churchly hierarchy in a parish church. It is not to overstate that the concept of hierarchy is a basic part of man’s mental world. An organization which does not have some kind of up-down structure is very difficult to imagine. In every organization, people want to know who is in charge, who represents them and take charge of their interests. The problem seems to be not to avoid the hierarchy but to make it well- functioning or healthy. In a sense, that is what the next part deals with.

Source: Skyttner Lars (2006), General Systems Theory: Problems, Perspectives, Practice, Wspc, 2nd Edition.

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