Converging hierarchies and networks: are we on the edge of the revolution?

Few things warm my heart more than people talking about the relationship between hierarchies and networks, between the rigid, old-school org chart and the ever expanding web of connections and conversations.

So, this morning, when keynoter Seth Mattison addressed the assembled throng at the IABC World Conference, his choice of subject—the inevitable, generational transition from a hierarchical world to a networked world, I was pumped with enthusiasm: the adrenaline of seeing nearly 1000 of my friends and colleagues getting a grasp of an idea which has driven me for fifteen years, combined with anxiety about how to help take the audience’s enthusiasm and convert it into impact for real organizations and communities.

The integration of hierarchies and networks is not a new idea.

I wrote a book on how to do it, From Lincoln to LinkedIn, more than five years ago.

But Mattison’s talk did highlight some new stuff:

  • Millennials are far more aware of the networked, informal nature of organizations and communities than older generations, in no small part because they have received much more of their education and guidance from peers rather than elders from childhood
  • Networks and hierarchies are built with different, though not completely incompatible, sets of unwritten rules. Hierarchies are designed to make it difficult to challenge upwards, networks form in a way which make it easy for ideas to flow laterally
  • While information is intended to be scarce and secured in hierarchies, it is universally accessible in networks and anyone with information or ideas can share them globally and instantly.

Indeed, we are not simply at a point where we can consciously combine and integrate hierarchies and networks, which can be done through social network analysis and influence management, we are also at a juncture when communication channels themselves have changed.  Even four, five years ago, I saw the connections between the boxes on org charts and even between individuals on network maps as mere distribution channels.

In Mattison’s presentation – and the unexpectedly emotional reaction of the IABC crowd which followed his closing montage about the future which will emerge from these changes – it became clear that those lines concurrently represent a combination of content, emotion, affinity, urgency and directionality.  It exposed a recognition of the nature of communication channels as being human, in addition to the recognition of the humanity of the recipients.

To be fair, while a number of people, myself included, have recognized the revolutionary potential of identifying, connecting and mobilizing networked leaders, the revolution has yet to occur. Mattison, for all the enthusiasm he generated for the concept, offered no story of how it actually transpires.

There are tools out there. Pioneering companies like Innovisor and OrgMapper and visionary consultants like Leandro Herrero have succeeded at moving these ideas from concepts to outcomes. The big question – will the newfound enthusiasm and global footprint of the IABC attendees accelerate the appetite for revolutionary solutions, and enable a watertight business case for them to emerge?

For one approach to learning about informal networks and how they interact with hierarchies, download my free guide at www.changingtheterms.com/influencers

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