CIIC, 8 Dec 2018, Auckland

towards-human-scale.pngThe theme of moving towards human scale societies led participants to suggest two topics:

  1. Ways of moving towards non-hierarchical forms of organisation based on peer feedback and an advice process
  2. How to get serious about diversity and inclusion within organisations and within society

Moving towards non-hierarchical forms of organisation

We started the discussion by sharing experiences from various organisations related to the organisational dysfunctions and organisational learning disabilities induced by hierarchical forms of organisation.

To illustrate the motivation for non-hierarchical forms of organisations we watched the following commentary on self-management by Frederic Laloux:

Jorn pointed out that Frederic’s observations and feelings are fully consistent with the perspectives and social experiences made by people within the autistic community.

One the one hand, across the world, the number of new organisations that run a non-hierarchical operating model is growing, and on the other hand, whilst some data is available on transitioning from a hierarchical operating model to a non-hierarchical model, there is not yet enough data available to clearly state a set of preconditions that must preferably be met when attempting to transition from an established hierarchical model to a non-hierarchical model of organisation.

Experience so far seems to suggest that a removal of hierarchical structures within a large established organisation requires full support by top management, i.e. executives must act as role models by giving up their formal powers over other team members.

The level of experience of workshop participants with establishing and operating non-hierarchical networked organisations varied. This led to a lively debate about the essence of human nature and the level to which humans are culturally programmed by society and educational systems.

Archaeological and anthropological evidence suggests that small scale “pre-civilisation” societies had strong social norms that prevented individuals from gaining power over others, and that these norms and highly collaborative tendencies distinguish humans from other primates.

Some primatologists venture to describe the difference between humans and other primates in terms of a cognitive trade-off hypothesis: short-term memory capacity has been traded against the capacity for symbolic language, which greatly assisted humans in sharing and transmitting knowledge – which in turn is essential for coordinating collaborative endeavours. Even if evidence for the cognitive trade-off hypothesis is weak, there is little doubt about the innate collaborative tendencies of human babies.

It was only the development of written language, money, and cities in combination with the human capacity for cultural transmission (over-imitation) that gave rise to hierarchically organised civilisations. Thus the question today is how the foundations of civilisation (language, money, cities) need to be reinvented to catalyse the formation of non-hierarchical forms of organisation.

Hierarchical societies have a track record of eventually collapsing due to cultural inertia and inability to adapt to changing environmental circumstances. It seems that the advent of zero-marginal cost global peer-to-peer communication  has triggered a phase shift towards non-hierarchical networked societies that could be as big as the shift from small-scale societies to super-human scale civilisations.

Earlier discussions at the CIIC Auckland workshop in September 2018 led to a thought experiment and suggestions for reinventing the resource flows within cities and for largely replacing financial metrics with waste metrics.

In this workshop we explored the organisational structures in which people collaborate and gather experiences (learn). In the private sector work tends to be organised around

  • projects,
  • products and services,
  • and economic / technological platforms.

In academia work tends to be organised around

  • research projects,
  • disciplines,
  • and multi-disciplinary research programmes.


The structural abstractions of organisation / team, project, product / service, and platform are as relevant and useful in non-hierarchical organisations as they are in hierarchical organisations. In a self-organising environment people gravitate to specific projects, products and services and platforms based on their intrinsic motivations and interests, and people with deep domain-specific knowledge tend to be crystallisation points for domain-specific structural abstractions – with no central point of control across all streams of work. Instead work and learning within competency networks is coordinated via an advice process.

When the executives of an established organisation commit to giving up their formal power and to incrementally transition to a non-hierarchical organisation, the following sequence of steps creates a suitable learning environment for all members of the organisation:

  1. Introduction of regular open space workshops, to power a continuous SECI (socialisation, externalisation, combination, internalisation) knowledge creation spiral that breaks through the barriers of established silos and management structures.
  2. Adoption of an advice process as a means for coordinating activities and for allowing knowledge to flow to the places where it is needed
  3. Implementation of pro-social design principles to create an environment that nurtures trusted relationships and that values diversity, both within the organisation as well as externally, when engaging with other organisations.
  4. The implementation of pro-social design principles offers opportunities for incremental discovery of valuable multidimensional context-specific metrics that have the potential to replace simplistic unidimensional financial metrics.


The incremental transition from simplistic financial metrics goes hand in hand with a transition from super-human scale hierarchical structures to human scale networked structures. The overall shift can be described as a shift from cultural inertia towards organisational learning.

Getting serious about diversity and inclusion

We did not have much time left to explore this topic, but as it happens this topic was discussed in depth in a workshop on creating an inclusive culture at the HiNZ conference in November.

Further exploration

Over the next few months Marzieh Jahanbazi and Jorn Bettin envisage conducting experiments with agent based simulations to explore how different forms of organisation (hierarchical and non-hierarchical) evolve over time in different kinds of environments. This will likely generate interesting results for discussion in future CIIC workshops.