Can #highered move from hierarchical to networked?

JUN15_08_545754619_bFor many months now, I’ve been thinking a lot about the forces discussed in this great Harvard Business Review article about the need for organizations to shift from hierarchical to networked structures. And I’ve been wondering whether higher education, bound as it has been for centuries in a hierarchical structure, can make the shift to a networked one.

The hierarchical structure that is so prevalent in organizations today is largely a product of industrialization and standardization, when organizations needed span of control and bureaucracy.

Those days may be vanishing, thanks to the Internet and disruptive innovation. But the organizations that did well in the days of hierarchy — big business, government, education, organized religion — are not. But their hierarchical nature makes them slow to adapt and not equipped for the coming transformation toward networked organizations.

Greg Satell, who wrote the HBR article above, points out four big differences between hierarchical and networked organizations. Here they are, with my take on what they mean for higher education marketing structures.

Who needs org charts?

“If it can fit on a traditional org chart, it’s not a network,” Satell writes. Networks are informal, organic-like structures that form more naturally than a human-imposed structure. Organizational charts don’t work so well.

I believe this is true with most central marketing and communications functions. As our organization becomes more complex, I struggle with developing an org chart that truly reflects the way our department [“department”; what an old-school, hierarchical concept] operates.

Like many marketing teams in higher education, we’re not strictly “marketing.” Our team includes a mix of specialists and generalists, but our responsibilities and duties overlap in many ways and forms. And we work together in ways that allow for more cross-functional networking. We meet as a group to debate issues and ideas, bringing together our diverse perspectives, and we strive to embrace creative conflict as a way to come up with ideas. We try to avoid the HiPPO syndrome in our decision-making, even if we don’t always succeed.

I suspect that many marketing and communications teams in higher ed approach the creative and communications processes in much the same way. But there are pain points when attempting to take this approach to work in an environment that is as traditional and hierarchical as higher education.

Will that ever change? In an organization as stratified by more traditional functions ever be able to come to grips with a more networked structure? Not any time soon, I’m afraid.

Silos aren’t always bad

How many times have we heard that if we would just “break down the silos” in our organizations, all would be well?

I’ve said it myself, many times. And there are times when organizational silos need to be dealt with. But they’re not always the problem, as Satell points out.

“Silos are functional groups and they need a high degree of clustering to work effectively and efficiently,” he writes. Problems arise when the silos impede communication. Too often, “path lengths (from silo to silo) are too great and information travels too slowly, resulting in a failure to adapt.”

To look at our marketing and communications model again: We have groups of specialists — writers, videographers, designers, photographers — who often need to work autonomously or in small groups to get creative work done efficiently. But these individuals and small groups — these miniature silos — come together with other groups to connect and share ideas, projects and works in progress (rough drafts).

But things can break down when we try to scale that approach across the university. Projects specific to the silos of advancement or admissions, for example, can become delayed or get lost due to the hierarchical structure of the university.

Some silos are bigger and more complex (more hierarchical) than others, with too many layers of review and approval, and as a project passes through each layer, context and objectives become less clear, confusion enters the system, approval time drags, accountability is shirked, deadlines are missed, and so on. Smaller, less complex silos, with shorter path lengths and speedier information flow, may help. Technology has helped speed communication among silos, but the hierarchical nature of higher education and the “Why wasn’t I consulted?” syndrome — the desire for buy-in or consensus from every conceivable party who may be remotely effected by a decision — can also slow the information flow. (Related to the WWIC syndrome is the CYA syndrome, in which parties responsible for signing off on projects prefer to cover themselves by shifting the responsibility. It’s easier to do this in a complex, hierarchical, bureaucracy.)

Networks are organic

We all have our organic networks in higher education. People connect over common interests, or by working together on a project, or by professional networking, and when these connections happen, the results can be wonderful.

Unfortunately, writes Satell, “traditional organizations actively discourage connectivity,” favoring instead “strict operational alignment within specific functional areas while doing little to foster links between them.”

In higher education, that problem exists. But there’s also an opposite, more sinister situation: the “forced networks” imposed on projects and programs. In higher education, we call these forced networks “committees” or “task forces” or “work groups.”

Too often, people are appointed to serve on these groups who have no expertise or any desire to be involved. They serve to represent some constituency within the organization. Or over-committed people are appointed because they are the go-to people who always serve on committees.

Whether it’s the unwilling or the over-committed who are on the committee, you can bet that the work will get bogged down. At times, it’s better to have willing individuals working on projects in functioning silos rather than having a committee or the misnamed work group.

Networks aren’t necessarily flat

When Satell’s article came out, flat structures and leaderless organizations were in vogue. He references Zappos’ experiment with holocracy — in which the company got rid of its managers. It’s been hailed as a new, more democratic approach to business, but the jury is still out on whether it will work.

But what would a leaderless organization look like in higher education? What would a college look like without a president, or deans, or department chairs?

Satell suggests a different approach, one adopted by the military and described by General Stanley McChrystal in his recent book, Team of Teams. Organizations still have their leaders, but the role of leadership has changed — or needs to change.

Whereas before, it was the role of managers to direct work, in a connected age we need to instill passion and purpose around a shared mission.  The networking, if encouraged and not inhibited, will take care of itself.

In other words, employees should manage themselves and be held accountable. This includes faculty, most of whom see themselves as independent contractors anyway. But the role of leaders is to inspire and cast the vision for an organization.

That seems to be the role that college and university presidents are taking on more and more these days. They are the “face” of the institution among alumni and donors, legislators, the media, and the public. But the tension of leading as a vision-caster for a cumbersome hierarchical organization is a weighty and no doubt wearisome task. It’s no wonder the job of a university president is one of the toughest jobs out there.

* * *

In addition to being hierarchical, colleges and universities are rooted in a tradition in which governance was shared as a collegia — organizations in which each member has equal power and responsibility. That is the ideal of “shared governance,” a term that is misunderstood by faculty and administrators alike. As Gary A. Olson points out in this 2009 essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “The truth is that all legal authority in any university originates from one place and one place only: its governing board.”

Still, many colleges and universities operate as hierarchies that try to incorporate the ideas of the collegium for the sake of shared governance at some level, and that provide enough autonomy for some groups to work in a more entrepreneurial, networked fashion.

For marketers in this environment, an entrepreneurial mindset and work style that meshes with the uncertainly and flexibility of networked systems is a must these days. But even as we adopt that role, we must realize we operate in a world that does not truly reflect those values. We truly are not of the world (academia) that we serve.

In the end, higher education must move toward becoming a complex adaptive system — one that changes its behavior in the face of changes in the environment. Responsive and nimble and, yes, networked.

The system of higher education is certainly complex, and becoming more so. It’s the adaptive part we struggle with.

What do you think?

Can higher education ever move to a more networked, non-hierarchical structure?

Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

3 thoughts on “Can #highered move from hierarchical to networked?”

  1. Maybe some institutions can. But by and large, but I was reading a story ( yesterday about how unusual higher ed because of the stakeholders from all sides and it makes it unlike any other org in that way. Plus so much of this is about control. It’ll take a generational leadership shift or at least, a paradigm shift based on how people interpret leadership.

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