Ten years ago, in my first foray into senior management, I was told by a consultant to the newly-installed Principal that “he’s very hierarchical”. She meant it in a good way, but I almost quit on the spot. To me, that’s shorthand for a very dictatorial style of management.
So Bartlett’s post, which I think I’ve mentioned before, is one I keep coming back to. He says that:
I don’t care about hierarchy. It’s just a shape. I care about power dynamics.
These days I have mostly removed “non-hierarchical” from my vocabulary. I still haven’t found a great replacement, but for now I say “decentralised”. But again, it’s not the shape that’s interesting, it’s the power dynamics.
Richard D. Bartlett
That’s quite a challenging notion for me, having been in situations within very hierarchical organisations where people try and put me in a box, tie me to a particular role, or otherwise indicate I should stick to my own lane.
It’s something I’m continue to process. I’m not sure whether Bartlett’s correct. It’s a great argument, and I’ve certainly seen some great organisations structured by way of what I’d call the “default operating system” of hierarchy.
Perhaps the thing is that it’s easy to show the difference between the way an organisation is structured (its nodes) as opposed to the the difference between the way those nodes connect with one another. Interactions between other human beings are complicated, and difficult to put in a neat diagram.
Recently, Sam Altman, President of the famed startup accelerator Y Combinator, wrote a Twitter thread which he entitled How To Be Successful At Your Career. It’s what people do instead of blogging these days, it would appear.
One tweet in the thread really stuck out to me, especially in this context of hierarchy and coercive power relationships:
The most successful people (judged by history, not money) continually look for the most important thing they are able to work on, and that’s what they do. They do not get trapped in local maxima, and they do not deceive themselves if they find something more important.
In other words, what you’re attempting to do should transcend the organisation you currently work for and the people with whom you currently work. I believe Steve Jobs called this “making a dent in the universe”. It’s unlikely to happen if you’re playing politics within your organisation, if you’re abusing a position of power, or you’re spending all day in meetings.
Fred Wilson, a VC, says he often gets asked what to work on. This is understandable, given it’s his job to keep his finger on the pulse of companies in which he can invest. Wilson sums up by saying:
You must work on something that inspires you and others, you must work on something with a significant impact, and you must do it in a way that makes getting where you want to go as easy as possible and keeps you there as long as possible.
I think this is a good mantra, and I appreciate that he doesn’t just consider ‘impact’ to be ‘financial impact’, but also “how it changes the way people think and how they react to your product or service or innovation”.
Context is really important. It’s the reason why there is no one-size-fits-all approach to organisational structures, and why, unless you’re the founder of the organisation, you will never be 100% aligned with everything it does. And even then, if your organisation grows to make an impact, there will be a difference between you and the organisation you helped to gestate.
All we can do, at any given point, is to weigh up where we are, using principles such as Fred Wilson’s:
Am I working on something that inspires me (and others)?
Am I working on something with a significant impact?
Am I working in a way that makes getting where I want to go as easy as possible (and keeps me there as long as possible)?
As Altman writes, that’s likely to be in a place that doesn’t play politics and, to Bartlett’s point, it’s important to pay very close attention to power dynamics. In short, it’s important to ask ourselves regularly, “Am I best positioned to make the particular dent I’ve decided to make in the universe?”
One of the things that attracted me to the world of Open Badges and digital credentialing back in 2011 was the question of relevance. As a Philosophy graduate, I’m absolutely down with the idea of a broad, balanced education, and learning as a means of human flourishing.
However, in a world where we measure schools, colleges, and universities through an economic lens, it’s inevitable that learners do so too. As I’ve said in presentations and to clients many times, I want my children to choose to go to university because it’s the right choice for them, not because they have to.
In an article in Forbes, Brandon Busteed notes that we’re on the verge of a huge change in Higher Education:
This shift will go down as the biggest disruption in higher education whereby colleges and universities will be disintermediated by employers and job seekers going direct. Higher education won’t be eliminated from the model; degrees and other credentials will remain valuable and desired, but for a growing number of young people they’ll be part of getting a job as opposed to college as its own discrete experience. This is already happening in the case of working adults and employers that offer college education as a benefit. But it will soon be true among traditional age students. Based on a Kaplan University Partners-QuestResearch study I led and which was released today, I predict as many as one-third of all traditional students in the next decade will “Go Pro Early” in work directly out of high school with the chance to earn a college degree as part of the package.
This is true to some degree in the UK as well, through Higher Apprenticeships. University study becomes a part-time deal with the ‘job’ paying for fees. It’s easy to see how this could quickly become a two-tier system for rich and poor.
A “job-first, college included model” could well become one of the biggest drivers of both increasing college completion rates in the U.S. and reducing the cost of college. In the examples of employers offering college degrees as benefits, a portion of the college expense will shift to the employer, who sees it as a valuable talent development and retention strategy with measurable return on investment benefits. This is further enhanced through bulk-rate tuition discounts offered by the higher educational institutions partnering with these employers. Students would still be eligible for federal financial aid, and they’d be making an income while going to college. To one degree or another, this model has the potential to make college more affordable for more people, while lowering or eliminating student loan debt and increasing college enrollments. It would certainly help bridge the career readiness gap that many of today’s college graduates encounter.
The ‘career readiness’ that Busteed discusses here is an interesting concept, and one that I think has been invented by employers who don’t want to foot the bill for training. Certainly, my parents’ generation weren’t supposed to be immediately ready for employment straight after their education — and, of course, they weren’t saddled with student debt, either.
Related, in my mind, is the way that we treat young people as data to be entered on a spreadsheet. This is managerialism at its worst. Back when I was a teacher and a form tutor, I remember how sorry I felt for the young people in my charge, who were effectively moved around a machine for ‘processing’ them.
Now, in an article for The Guardian, Jeremy Hannay tells it like it is for those who don’t have an insight into the Kafkaesque world of schools:
Let me clear up this edu-mess for you. It’s not Sats. It’s not workload. The elephant in the room is high-stakes accountability. And I’m calling bullshit. Our education system actively promotes holding schools, leaders and teachers at gunpoint for a very narrow set of test outcomes. This has long been proven to be one of the worst ways to bring about sustainable change. It is time to change this educational paradigm before we have no one left in the classroom except the children.
Just like our dog-eat-dog society in the UK could be much more collaborative, so our education system badly needs remodelling. We’ve deprofessionalised teaching, and introduced a managerial culture. Things could be different, as they are elsewhere in the world.
In such systems – and they do exist in some countries, such as Finland and Canada, and even in some brave schools in this country – development isn’t centred on inspection, but rather professional collaboration. These schools don’t perform regular observations and monitoring, or fire out over-prescriptive performance policies. Instead, they discuss and design pedagogy, engage in action research, and regularly perform activities such as learning and lesson study. Everyone understands that growing great educators involves moments of brilliance and moments of mayhem.
That’s the key: “moments of brilliance and moments of mayhem”. Ironically, bureaucratic, hierarchical systems cannot cope with amazing teachers, because they’re to some extent unpredictable. You can’t put them in a box (on a spreadsheet).
Actually, perhaps it’s not the hierarchy per se, but the power dynamics, as Richard D. Bartlett points out in this post.
Yes, when a hierarchical shape is applied to a human group, it tends to encourage coercive power dynamics. Usually the people at the top are given more importance than the rest. But the problem is the power, not the shape.
What we’re doing is retro-fitting the worst forms of corporate power dynamics onto education and expecting everything to be fine. Newsflash: learning is different to work, and always will be.
Interestingly, Bartlett defines three different forms of power dynamics, which I think is enlightening:
Follett coined the terms “power-over” and “power-with” in 1924. Starhawk adds a third category “power-from-within”. These labels provide three useful lenses for analysing the power dynamics of an organisation. With apologies to the original authors, here’s my definitions:
power-from-within or empowerment — the creative force you feel when you’re making art, or speaking up for something you believe in
power-with or social power — influence, status, rank, or reputation that determines how much you are listened to in a group
power-over or coercion — power used by one person to control another
The problem with educational institutions, I feel, is that we’ve largely done away with empowerment and social power, and put all of our eggs in the basket of coercion.
Learning Alignment Model(Tom Barrett) – “It is not a step by step process to design learning, but more of a high-level thinking model to engage with that uncovers some interesting potential tensions in our classroom work.”
A Definition of Academic Innovation(Inside Higher Ed) – “What if academic innovation was built upon the research and theory of our field, incorporating social constructivist, constructionist and activity theory?”