Organizational Hierarchy vs Bureaucracy


I have often mistaken these two terms and so have others. I find people quite often use one when they actually meant the other. For those, who use the terms correctly, this post doesn't have anything for you.

I used to think hierarchy is a bad thing and promotes bureaucracy. So much so that I started assuming one implies the other. My current stand on these two terms is a little different.

I feel, hierarchy inherently is a good thing and it doesn't necessarily promote bureaucracy. Bureaucracy isn't a bad thing either but it does become bad when it is out of place. It might make sense to have bureaucracy in a non-creational environment. Places where maintaining a system or a business process is the objective, it perhaps is a good idea. Transport it to a creational environment and you suck the life out of the team. A lifeless team cannot create much.

Coming back to hierarchy, the reason I find it better than a flat structure is because it helps you define your constants. If someone is at a level, you can make certain assumptions about her. An example would be, if you have developers ranging from 1 year in industry to 20, all marked as developers, there is hardly a parity when you have to address (it can mean various things here, work allocation, training requirement, staffing for a project...) a group of 'developers'. (Here I don't intend to mean that years define expertise, but in a normally distributed environment, more experienced people have a better chance of performing and knowing more than saplings. In case new folks are smart they will jump the levels faster). You never know what can be assumed for a developer. But, if we have levels, there will be a benchmark understanding based on a person's level.

In an organizations that boasts of having a flat structure, it isn't impossible to find a developer who doesn't know what version control is and another one who would have written a version control software. Both will be tagged developers though. It is equally likely to have an organization with many levels and still no communication barrier despite the number of levels.

If I see an organization that boasts of a flat hierarchy, I am going to be, if not highly suspicious, very cautious about it. At the end, it's all about people making the group to define their environment no matter how you structure it.