Digital Subverts Hierarchy? Let’s Investigate

They say software is eating the world. What about Hierarchy? Let’s find out.

Image Credits: Breaking Smart — Illustration by Grace Witherell

In the rage filled liturgies of the Internet, rarely does one come upon a sentence which is kaleidoscopic. The playleft in me loves to play with such sentences even when I don’t find them right. Such are the charms of the kaleidoscope that you start on a journey of investigation with its fluid images even when the geometry isn’t so satisfying.

At the heart of every kaleidoscope, lies its irresistible charm: Every time you hold it, you see different things.

Couple of months ago, my friend Isabel wrote one such sentence in her blog: Digital Subverts Hierarchy. The title of her blog post was my kaleidoscope, even though I didn’t agree with the way she had interpreted them.

Given my work in helping organizations develop the right collaborative muscles needed to swim through the tumultuous waters of digital, I find it necessary to investigate this sentence with all its imperfect geometry.

I call it imperfect, because it is so tempting to agree with it. If your job lies on the right side of digital, helping rudderless employees grow fins and scales to collaborate and swim with purpose, a casual glance at the changes happening in the world makes it seem obvious.

Yes, of course, digital subverts hierarchy. After all, it has upended traditional power structures in the Middle East (albeit temporarily before it descended to more despotic regimes) and has tossed out the dog eared, old grammar book of business into the trash bin by putting the customer in the epicenter of the network.

There is a problem though.

In our teen-like infatuation with technology, we not only overestimate the effect of technology, we also underestimate the effect of hierarchy.

First Things First. Hierarchy is an underlying organizing design principle which enables communication, coordination and operational execution. It is deeply embedded in biological and man-made systems. And here is the important thing: Design principles don’t have values. They are a-moral. Not immoral.

We need to ensure that we keep “morals” at bay from organizational design principles, because it is so tempting to do so when technology narratives are willfully woven that way.

Technology sells when marketers narrate fantasy stories about the digital workplace conquering the evil forces of hierarchy, breaking the tyranny of emails, and promising us the ego-less, networked paradise where humans live in harmony with machines of loving grace.

The truth is, as they say, stranger than you think.

Sample this.

1) In biological systems, it is a well-established fact that hierarchical design principles lead to greater robustness and adaptability.( Refer End Notes — 1 below)

2) In man-made systems, it is a empirically tested fact that simple structures based on hierarchical design principles accelerates design production and reuse of design artifact. (Refer End Notes — 2 below)

3) In a recent study on the evolutionary origins of hierarchy, it has been suggested that hierarchy in fact evolves due to the cost of connections in a network. (Refer End Notes -3 below)

So, what exactly is happening here?

Allow me to zoom out a bit.

We are in the midst of a massive upgrade of our human operating system of work. In a techno-fantasy world dreamt probably by a consultant, the shift might look something like this. Do you want to move from the old world of Industrial Work to the brave, new world of Post-Industrial Work? Simply turn on each of the switches below.

The point must be obvious.

Orchestrating this shift with the emerging digital workplace tool stack until it becomes the new normal is going to take a lot of time. (I am thinking of a time span of atleast >10 years)

But why is this going to take so much time? Haven’t we already got the state-of-the-art digital tools ready?

Let’s go several levels deeper and ask a fundamental question:

How do humans comprehend the changes in the environment that surrounds them?

Work-related OS-level changes involving pervasive digital technologies are big tectonic shifts that will change the way we relate with work and life. Allow me to establish the ground in order investigate the evolution of these changes in our work life.

As it must be obvious, these large scale changes do not happen in a vacuum. They occur in an ever-changing complex environment buffeted by multiple shaping forces. Here is one word which neatly sums up the kind of dynamics I am talking about: Context

For the sake of our investigation, here is a simple definition of context:

A context is the sum of all history rolled up into a present-day operating environment, like a canvas with an evolving painting already on it.

This canvas, as it exists as a representation, consists of various superimposing layers which affect how humans make sense of their environments. These layers are called as pace layers. I’ve borrowed them from Andrew Hinton’s insightful book: Understanding Context.

Here is an additional aspect about these layers.

Lower-level layer changes more slowly in time than the next, and so on.

Let us briefly look at describing each of these layers, before moving on with our discussion. I’ll start from the bottom most to the top.

  1. Perception/Cognition — How does my body respond to an environment? For changes to happen in this layer, it would take centuries, as per the forces of human evolution. This layer can also be called as the Physical domain.
  2. Spoken Language — It is the next immediate layer that has shaped human existence. Given how speech has deeply impacted human evolution , it is also going to take several centuries.
  3. Written/Graphical Language — From here, we move into the world of technologies in which we encode, record and share languages. Majority of the traditional business elements and artifacts such as reports, contracts and agreements belong here. This layer, along with the previous layer, is called as Semantic domain.
  4. Information Organization & Design — From here, we move into the digital world from the analog world. Although, we’ve also borrowed many of our organizing concepts from the analog world. Our earliest organizing concepts of the cyber space were based on earlier layers which shape our world. Skeuomorphism emerges primarily from this aspect.
  5. Digital Tools — Digital Workplace tools and platforms used in our work environment. These tools have disrupted our workplace environments in a very short period of time by the virtue of network effects.

Now that the ground has been set, let us now come back to the original question:

Has digital subverted hierarchy? A sincere attempt to answer to this question would entail addressing it across each of the layers which define the context canvas.

Of course, digital has subverted hierarchy in the layer of digital tools as we’ve moved from traditional applications which are, to use Rinde’s description “resource oriented, transactional, event driven systems”. I think this must be easiest to comprehend. This is our reality as we experience it everyday in our work-lives.

In the layer of Information Organization & design, we are currently witnessing the conflict between hierarchy and digital tools. Enterprise social streams where people have multiple relationships with their co-workers naturally threaten the authority which has been conventionally pre-defined in the organizational chart. This battle is being played out in every large organization that is struggling to transform digitally for their employees.

In the layer of written language and spoken language, hierarchy still rules the roost, as the fundamental layer of perception/cognition is largely driven by mental models of hierarchy rather than networks.

I have used a simplified model of these layers and have glossed over few details. I will be exploring these changes in greater depth in my upcoming posts.

Thank you Isabel for inspiring me to write this post.


1) Refer to the links given below for studies on hierarchy in complex biological systems.

*** Bassett DS, Greenfield DL, Meyer-Lindenberg A, Weinberger DR, Moore SW, Bullmore ET. Efficient physical embedding of topologically complex information processing networks in brains and computer circuits. PLoS Computational Biology. 2010 Apr 22;6(4):e1000748. doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1000748. pmid:20421990

View Article PubMed/NCBI Google Scholar

*** Kaiser M, Hilgetag CC, Kötter R. Hierarchy and dynamics of neural networks. Frontiers in neuroinformatics. 2010 Aug 23;4(112).

View Article PubMed/NCBI Google Scholar

2) Refer to the links given below for studies on hierarchy in man-made systems

*** Suh NP. The principles of design. New York: Oxford University Press; Feb 1990.

*** Ozaktas HM. Paradigms of connectivity for computer circuits and networks. Optical Engineering. 1992 Jul 1;31(7):1563–7. doi: 10.1117/12.57685.

View Article PubMed/NCBI Google Scholar

3) Refer to the link given below for studies on evolutionary origins of hierarchy

*** Mengistu H, Huizinga J, Mouret JB, Clune J (2016) The Evolutionary Origins of Hierarchy. PLOS Computational Biology 12(6): e1004829. doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1004829

View Article

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