In search of the REAL organizational chart

We’re all familiar with those hierarchy charts drafted by most organizations, that convey — through boxes and lines — how the command and control structure works among their paid staff and leadership. These are handy tools to show who reports to whom, and how information is supposed to flow through the chains of command. Despite their utility, however, we also all know that they are elaborate forms of fiction.

Complex organizations (ie, more than two people) do not and cannot work in a linear, hierarchical form. Certain team members connect at different levels at different times. Projects lead to informal conversations and connections across departmental lines (you hope). And interconnections with individuals outside the chart are often just as vital as those inside (where do the creative and technical team show up, for example, if they are not part of the paid professional staff?).

It turns out that the behavior of such organic and informal networks is a major course of study in other disciplines — like social science, computer networking, disease control, and the like. And there are some fun and useful things we could glean from what they’ve learned.

For example, the study of networks has yielded specific measurements for how powerful and connected any individual (or ‘node’) is within a certain system (there’s an overview here):

Degrees: The number of direct connections a node has to other nodes.

Betweenness: The control a node has over what flows in the network — how often is this node on the path between other nodes?

Closeness: How easily a node can access what is available via the network — how quickly can this node reach all others in the network? This measure is less about direct connections, and more about being connected to connected people.

There are even software tools that help track and discover the hidden, informal networks in large project teams or corporations. InFlow, for example, draws relationship maps using any of a number of inputs. In one project, the software was used to analyze e-mail traffic among a large project team, to discover the individuals who served as hubs of information (see the chart and project description). These were not the official hubs, mind you, but the actual ones.

The point here is not to gather some fun new jargon (although that’s always great for parties). It’s to reinforce a feeling we already have: that there is the formal structure of how we say our organization works, and there’s the way it actually works. If you just consider the three measures above when thinking about your staff or peers, you can begin to see the emergent organizational structure: Who has contact with the most people inside and outside the organization (degrees)? Who seems to be between staff and the information they need (betweenness)? Who do you go to when you want to know where to find information or who else is likely to have it, or when you want news to spread fast (closeness)? You can quickly see why office receptionists, executive assistants, and janitors are often the best people to befriend at any organization.

As always, technology doesn’t make these structures happen (they’ve always been there). But it does allow us to see them in new and different ways.

Weblife maven Steven Johnson brings it all home in this great article in Discover magazine, when he quotes another prominent social network analyst, Kurt Vonnegut:

In his classic novel Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut explains how the world is divided into two types of social organizations: the karass and the granfalloon. A karass is a spontaneously forming group, joined by unpredictable links, that actually gets stuff done — as Vonnegut describes it, ‘a team that do[es] God’s Will without ever discovering what they are doing.’ A granfalloon, on the other hand, is a ‘false karass,’ a bureaucratic structure that looks like a team but is ‘meaningless in terms of the ways God gets things done.’

Sounds like a lot of organizations I know that focus so much on the official org chart, they miss the way they really work.