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From Hierarchy to Wirearchy – Managing People & Change in the Digital World

By Cynthia LaRowe

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It’s a truism that the business world has changed. Digital technology is ramping up competition, disrupting industries, and blurring the line between the physical and virtual. At the same time, four generations bring different workstyles and motivations to the workforce—but all have common expectations for user-driven everything, social and mobile ubiquity, and a sharing economy. 

Traditional methods of managing people and change are falling short in the face of these seismic shifts in talent and technology. Command and control hierarchies are being overshadowed by “wirearchies” (a term coined by Jon Husband in 1999)  in which information is available on demand, and impact often comes from personal connection instead of organizational position. 

Whether they recognize it or not, most companies have wirearchy today. What differentiates industry leaders from others is how well they understand and leverage wirearchy to remain competitive in their markets and industries. What are the top ways to make the most of wirearchy in your business?


Democratize information and power-sharing

Top-down, bottoms-up, two-way—today’s top companies recognize that organizational structures are porous and that different power dynamics exist in interconnected networks. They encourage open exchange and influence through official and unofficial channels—inside and outside of the company. Zappo’s Culture Book is an interesting example. A collage of unedited employee impressions, the book is accessible and open to comment by the public online.      


Prioritize idea generation and innovation

Leading companies have always been characterized by knowledge, trust, credibility, and a drive for results. Today’s top companies build and reinforce these traits by setting expectations and visibly rewarding employees who champion and test ideas and who channel time, energy, and focus toward innovation. Google’s dedication of 20% time to employee-driven ideas is a recent, highly-publicized example. The company publishes and tracks the popularity of employee suggestions via an internal social tool called the “Google-o-meter.”  


Encourage employees to “swarm”

Modern employees expect the workplace to work like the rest of the world which uses crowdsourcing to make decisions and get things done. Top companies support employees self-forming into groups to solve client problems and provide collaboration tools to ensure their work and learnings are transparent—to clients, each other, and the company. Spotify Engineering works in loosely coupled but tightly aligned squads with end-to-end, release-to-resolution responsibility. Autonomous and cross-functional, they prioritize cross-pollination and internal “open sourcing” to learn quickly and create new solutions.


Shift from push to pull

Leaders in top companies plan on critical initiatives being driven at all levels. They include employees in creating compelling visions for the future and ensure that strategic objectives and metrics are clear. Employees with direct customer contact have significant decision-making influence and easy feedback mechanisms to retool strategies and metrics as needed. Famous for including empty seats at meeting tables to represent the customer, Amazon empowers employees to “make it right on the spot,” “working backwards” from customer needs to defined customer strategies, budgets, and programs.   


Embrace a culture of “perpetual beta”

Today’s top companies continuously adapt to survive and thrive in the constantly changing business world. They recognize that success lies less in a fixed way of doing things and more in flexibility, responsiveness, and agility to learn new ways to work. They support individuals “developing while doing” and reward “failing fast” with new challenges and opportunities. One of the first companies to publish its culture code online, Hubspot “seat shuffles” a large part of the company randomly every three months to reflect its credo that “change is constant” and to support “failing frequently [rather] than never trying new things.”

Wirearchy may sound radical, but in practice, people have always built and leveraged their own networks and if needed, worked around hierarchy to get things done. Wirearchy enables people to work together in intuitive and modern ways. Hierarchy is not dead in the modern business world—just repurposed from determining who commands and controls information to providing context for how decisions are made and governed across interconnected, interdependent, and highly innovative people, processes, and technology.

A different world, indeed.


*Wirearchy: a concept and term coined and written about extensively by Jon Husband since 1999, and Harold Jarche and others since. Please see wirearchy.com for more information.

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