It seems like a taken-for-granted wisdom now that we speak of the “flattening of hierarchies” when we talk about Enterprise Social Networking (ESN). The simplified argument goes something like the following: “With ESN anyone in the organisation can have a say, which shifts the way influence and power in the organisation operates. Hierarchies become obsolete, because power in this new world stems from knowledge and contribution, not from a place in the hierarchy”.
But this line of reasoning has two main problems in my view: 1) it uses a straw man argument, 2) it applies a limited understanding of hierarchies.
1) The straw man argument
The argument assumes that traditionally (before ESN) power, communication and information flows in organisations would operate along hierarchical command chains. Quite obviously however for most organisations this is not true anyway. Rather, social networks and personal relationships have always been the source of information and power for individuals in organisations.
The role of ESN: What changes with the proliferation of ESN however is that it creates new social networks that have the power to by-pass the networks of old. ESN creates transparency, allows information to flow more freely and it brings to the fore the actual contributors of ideas and new knowledge. This in turn shifts the power between those that have ideas and those which were formerly able to control the (intransparent) social network, to appropriate ideas or use information as a scarce resource.
2) Limited understanding of the role of hierarchy
Hierarchies are often seen as a stand-in for top-down power and the chain of command in decision making and execution. However, hierarchies in organisations have a much more important function than that. Hierarchies give people something to aspire, they are part of our natural progression in our jobs “up the latter”. They exert an important motivational function. And most managers understand anyway that control and power are a tad more complex than the limited top-down stereotype.
The role of ESN: However, ESN allows people to become much more aware of each other. Across the hierarchy, but also horizontally across organisational functions (the silos). Information thus traverses the hierarchy much more freely.
Consequently, a fully adopted ESN might ‘devalue’ the intransparent behind-the-scenes social networks that allowed well-connected individuals to exploit their broker position within network. Where these individuals might have been able to collect, appropriate, and selectively withhold and spoon-feed their information previously, with ESN it becomes much more transparent who has got the good ideas and something to contribute.
Hence, ESN does not really devalue the concept of organisational hierarchy – hierarchies are here to stay, someone needs to be in charge after all, and we all aspire that next promotion – but it has the tendency to devalue the shadow networks that operate in the background. And that might not be such a bad thing.