Fishnet Organizations – Temporary and Flexible Hierarchies

Fifteen months ago, the Globe and Mail published a review of Gary Hamel’s “The Future of Management”.  The review reminded me of a concept I had come across years earlier.


The End of Management As We Know It ? 

[ Snip … ] 

We also must learn from the Internet’s example of widespread, leaderless collaborative effort. “The Web has evolved faster than anything human beings have created – largely because it is not a hierarchy. The Web is all periphery, and no centre,” he observes. 

We can use those examples to build a democracy of ideas in organizations, amplifying rather than dampening human imagination, dynamically reallocating resources, aggregating the collective wisdom in our workplaces, minimizing the drag of mental models, and turning employees from an army of conscripts into a community of volunteers. 

That’s a tall order. But it’s a tall book. He builds his ideas carefully and with discipline, in stages taking us through the challenges facing management, examples of maverick management to draw upon, ideas from elsewhere to consider, and then shows how to bring that together into a new formula for management that resembles Web 2.0 rather than 19th century thinking. 

Specifically … when it comes to applying to organizations the networked structures the Web affords, and the principles of the behaviours it engenders, I don’t quite fully agree with the observation that “The Web is all periphery, and no centre”. 

Technically speaking, I think that is correct. But … I think that there are (or will need to be) concentrations of expertise and (temporary) power at nodes in networks in order to get things done, which implies temporary centralization based on purpose and need. 

“The fishnet is flexible; it can form and re-form varied patterns of connection. The middle manager may at one time be at the apex, at another in the middle. The fishnet organization rearranges itself quickly while retaining its inherent strength.” 

I am reminded of a graphic image in a long-ago book titled “Upsizing The Individual In The Downsized Organization” (crappy title, good book) by Robert Johansen and Rob Swigart. The image was of a fishnet riding on the top of ocean waves, and the authors spoke of that image as a good way to imagine emering organizational structures … the waves of the ocean represented the ongoing waves of the flow of change, and they made the point that the fishnet could be lifted up at any given node to create a hierarchy (say for decision-making purposes or to concentrate resources on a specific issue or problem) and then later be let down again when the purpose was served. 

I liked that image then, and I still like it today. 


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *