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Anna Carlson

Hierarchical vs Networked learning

I was thinking yesterday about the behaviour you sometimes see in organisations of a reticence or a fear of asking for help. When trying to suppose why this might be it struck me that it might have something to do with a style of learning that is systematic within that organisation or a particular career. My hypothesis is this: some careers or companies operate a hierarchical learning model. 

That is, at each level of particular careers you learn enough to get to the next level. Once you’re at that level you then learn more to get to the next level, and so on. So, if you’re at a particular level, to ask questions or for help from ‘above’ or ‘below’ you may make you feel exposed.

This logic might also explain why colleagues may sometimes not offer help; perhaps it implies a lack of confidence in the abilities that are needed for their position.

I would suggest that the alternative style of learning to this is networked learning. This would be most prevalent in naturally less hierarchical organisations like ourselves or other consultancies or creative businesses, or at forward thinking hierarchical organisations.

Why forward thinking? Because I think that hierarchical learning isn’t conducive, in fact is obstructive to creating businesses fit for purpose for innovating within disruption. I think the behaviours it creates slows down people’s learning as they go higher up ‘the ladder’, limits their behavioural flexibility and creates a culture where people are afraid to challenge the status quo.

And what do I mean by networked learning? I think this has something to do with letting go of words like ‘expert’ and accepting that we are all learning, all of the time. And I think if we can do this, and ask any question without fear, we can shake things up and make things happen.

Societally and in the media we celebrate the beauty of youth, we see this as being fresh, open, malleable, exciting and open to opportunity. Whereas old age is seen as stale, stuck in our ways. What if we adopted a youthful, open, curious mind in business?  

Of course, if you’re within a culture of hierarchical learning in your company or industry, this may not feel so easy. It might even feel risky. 

So how could companies themselves encourage and create a safe environment for networked learning? A few ideas: 

  • Modelling behaviour from the top – what if the MD asked a group of executives for their help on a challenge he / she was facing? What if your manager told you they were stuck on something and would love to share it with you to see if you had any ideas? What if you asked for help from a peer you’re normally in (invisible, healthy) competition with? I think this is really powerful – it uses people in position of power to demonstrate that hey, it’s ok to ask for help.
  • Cultivate a culture of celebrating failure - we’ve talked a lot about the benefits of celebrating failure at NM, I think that cultivating a culture of this is naturally going to create the safety needed for people to ask questions and ask for help.
  • Create channels for the barriers to break down – eating together, away days, lunches, communication sessions. Basically spaces that your employees can connect more deeply, on a human level.
  • Encourage humility – no one person can possibly have all of the answers, or a failsafe memory, and we’re all learning all of the time. As you progress in an organisation or career, try not to feel responsible for having all the answers, rather that you’re responsible for having the questions!
  • Social technologies can help and provide the pipes, but ultimately if the behaviour isn’t changed then they become worthless. Think of all those dusty exercise bikes in people’s spare rooms!

You sell your expertise, you have a limited repertoire. You sell your ignorance, you have an unlimited repertoire.

- Charles Eames

This post was filed under Innovation, Training, Working culture Comments are currently closed.


  1. I wrote a response to this over at GigaOM (

    Posted 17th January 2013 at 6:03 pm | Permalink
  2. Your ideas are cool, Anna. But they go against the foundations of our culture, against the education our children receive at school, against what we teach at universities. They go against, well, capitalism. I love them, but they have deeper implications than just reorganizing a company environment. Don’t you think?

    Posted 17th January 2013 at 9:25 pm | Permalink
  3. Great posting,

    Having moved from the building trades which I thought was hierarchical to working at small college I’m starting to see the benefits of people working physically together as modeling the flattening qualities of a network. On a building crew it may not suit you to rely on someone with less qualifications but in a situation where they may be the ones assigned to properly build scaffolding, carry a bucket of hot tar to the journeyman without slopping it on him or hold up a wall while you set braces under it, what suits you is they are on side and expect the same concern for their safety and success as you do theirs.

    Where I now work there is none of this. As an assistant without academic qualifications I’m paid substantially less than those with qualifications that I often supervise. All suggestions made by me are dismissed unless they can be made to benefit others. The final irony is the many skills I have were gained in my own time through self-directed but uncredited learning opportunities and not being sanctioned contribute nothing to my recognized skill set. Yet I’m now being asked to train others with status in these skills which will then be added to their portfolio and pay grade benefits but only because they have the recognition of legitimate learners and my skills have been detached from my ownership by authority to be gifted to others similarly blessed but remain worthless within the confines of my limited organizational identity.

    This is why I spend so much time on MOOCs and other learning pursuits away from my job–the networks do not exclude or separate by privilege of position. “Membership” in a network tends to equality because it simply would have no structure without a flow of input into its flatness whereas hierarchies will not stand without some in the mud and others in the sky (and some sort of mechanism to convince by rules or persuasion those in the mud to stay there).

    And all this is not to say that we are trapped in this situation. Hierarchies tend to be blinded by self – congratulation and often don’t notice the lower levels have drifted away until after the collapse.

    I’ll print off and post your idea list at work. My parents had a full set of Charles Eames fiberglass and wire dining room chairs so maybe I learned my attitude towards hierarchies from a great master from the bottom up so to speak:-)

    Thanks for this thoughtful posting.

    Posted 18th January 2013 at 5:58 am | Permalink
  4. Lovely post Anna.

    I love the idea of the CEO or MD setting an example by being humble enough to demonstrate their own need to learn.

    This requires real leadership, of a type rarely seen in alpha male leaders.

    @gipsy jules These ideas only go against one type of capitalism – the prevalent form practised in 2013.

    Other forms of capitalism are possible and practical – you might enjoy listening to this short Harvard Business Review talk by John Mackey about one alternative.


    Posted 22nd January 2013 at 6:32 pm | Permalink
  5. Nice post, and, that Eames quote is one of my favourites.

    We are working on some of these issues at the moment, and it’s hard work. It’s not complicated though, well, it doesn’t have to be. The hardest thing is battling with the simplest of emotions, fear, envy, guilt etc. The second hardest thing is getting people to break patterns, when everything around them, especially in big corporations, is telling them to move faster, make more money, meet targets, sleep less or else.

    Posted 24th January 2013 at 10:31 am | Permalink
  6. Like to add “indifference” to the emotions mentioned by Curtis. Or maybe “detachment” is a better term? I find many at work occupy their position but aren’t truely there. As if they were enacting the role scripted for them. Encouraging people to bring themselves to work is difficult, though some volunteer activities that cross the work/life barrier seem to help bring bit of themselves into the work environment. Guess that would be helping people to break barriers like constantly hiding behind the safety of being limited to only their small part.

    As a positive we have a project that was promoted by those above and came to a halt because it might be politically risky for someone in leadership to carry. Strange as it seems, the project is a cultural literacy course on working together through conflicts, misunderstandings and other effects of racisism. The course includes some powerful personal interviews which seem to be too honest for the local focus groups to handle which in turn makes them too hot for college representatives in the public eye. As an outcome of the course being too dangerous for official release we have unspoken permission to seek back-channel distribution. So maybe something to add to the list is change agency through a sort of department of unofficial communication where touchy topics can be allowed expression at arms length from the organization’s public reputation? Without something like this, all that fine talk of “innovation” and risk taking in order to move forward is just the usual BS that wears on people’s spirit and causes them to disconnect.

    Posted 24th January 2013 at 7:36 pm | Permalink
  7. Very well put Scott.

    There is a huge risk I believe in believing our own “stuff” around topics like innovation and risk taking.

    Much of the literature on organisational learning, development and change does point to the difficulty of change.

    It doesn’t have to be that way (there may be alternative routes), but I think also being aware of the issues – especially around anxiety and risk – is worth it.

    If you are interested but need a start Isabel Menzies Lyth’s seminal paper on anxiety in the NHS is a good start.

    Posted 27th January 2013 at 6:54 pm | Permalink
  8. Thanks Pete, have read part way through the Menzies Lyth paper and will finish tonight. I sometimes feel that resolving problems that seem to have been created by lack of thought or agendas shared only by those at the top is somehow supportive of the problem. Reading the paper reveals a sort strange logic built into defending the self from damage by exhibiting dysfunctional or resistive behaviour directed at the perceived source of the problem instead of directing my energies at those around me who need support. A bit like waving my fist at the sinking ship while people all around me are drowning.

    I remember reading that every system has leverage points and helping each other directly seems the obvious choice where I work. Interesting that the most turmoil originates from our nursing education faculty:-)

    Posted 27th January 2013 at 8:48 pm | Permalink
  9. Hi Scott

    I think you put it well – it would be so nice wouldn’t it, if people behaved rationally and helped each other before protecting themselves? And helped each other rather than waving their fists.

    But I think the point of the paper is to show that in all kinds of organisations this kind of behaviour rarely happens.

    The same goes for the kinds of learning behaviours Anna calls for. They all make sense, but rarely, in my experience, happen.

    You are also very right, systems do have leverage points, so taking a systemic view point can help.

    Again in my experience this usually comes down to an individual or a small team catalysing a change – which is why true leadership – understanding one’s own self, one’s own positions, and one’s own interactions with a system – can be helpful.

    Self-development, therefore, seems to me to be the best way to create any kind of change – including beginning the journey towards being a learning organisation.

    (cue Gandhi quote, etc).


    Posted 30th January 2013 at 1:39 pm | Permalink
  10. Hi Pete,
    I wonder if there’s a term for that moment when someone in an organization decides they may as well act as if they were a normal person and not the weird mutation of themselves they become if they aren’t careful? Like the change from ice to water–a phase change.

    We are being simultaneously told more cut-backs are coming and that our input is valued and we should volunteer to participate in planning meetings to get a realistic idea of the challenges management faces. It’s no longer possible to understand what is going on at a level of every-day logic so instead of participating in the meetings I’m off to counseling course for students in crisis. Beats deliberately attending yet one other opportunity to be “consulted” on something we have no say in. Allowing people meaningful participation seems more important than building mock participation events to create the illusion of shared concerns. Anyway, this is a college full of students and only a few delusional managers.

    Posted 31st January 2013 at 1:43 am | Permalink
  11. Hi Scott

    Sounds like you are in a very difficult situation.


    Posted 31st January 2013 at 10:39 am | Permalink
  12. Hi Pete, having worked for my own or other very small companies in building construction most of my life I find it fascinating to study organizational models and the one I’m in is certainly very challenging. On the other hand, having been in a few travel writing workshops I do have a certain detachment to hide behind when things get difficult.

    Admittedly, this particular workplace has a high dysfunction rating. Even for an area known for weirdness we stand out as a place to avoid. Still, how interesting can it be to work at an average place? Since it isn’t likely I’ll every work in one of those “best managed” companies I might as well be at one of the worst:-)

    Posted 31st January 2013 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

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