Flat Organizations

I have long been a fan of 37 Signals, a company I would desperately want to work for if I had more tech chops and if I was in the job market. (Thank goodness I am not.) The major players at 37 Signals, Jason Fried and David Hannemeier Hansen, seem to have their heads screwed on right, and I congratulate them for doing business the old-fashioned way.

In this post in Inc., Fried makes the case for why hierarchies can fail, especially when you want to remain focused on getting things done. Many universities, when they are working well, pursue a kind of flattening process whereby deans and other administrative posts rotate among faculty who thus remain firmly enmeshed in the day-to-day purpose of higher education: teaching and research. As many other chroniclers have noted elsewhere, where universities begin to grow wrong is when they grow a permanent administrative layer that does not have to live the reality. Certainly in my time in executive education I came across any number of organizations that had a disconnect between the abstractions that management could dream up and the reality that the folks who actually produced things faced. A number of those organizations have, unsurprisingly, failed in the decade since I first knew them.

It’s probably the case that universities are more buffered from economic realities than other entities, but that gap seems to be closing in the current political climate. Worse, that climate seems to be encouraging more permanent administrative layers.