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= "research findings reveal human relationships are optimized when humans feel they are valued at the same level." [1]


Description 1

If hierarchy is the power system of centralized systems, then heterarchical power is the power system of decentralized systems and Responsible Autonomy is the power system of distributed systems.

This distinction is derived from the work on 'triarchy', distinguishing three forms of rule and governance,by Gerard Fairtlough, former CEO of Shell Chemicals UK and founder of biotech firm Celltech.

"there are three ways of getting things done in organizations and the combination of the three is called triarchy, which means triple rule. The Three Ways of Getting Things Done: Hierarchy, Heterarchy and Responsible Autonomy in Organizations. When I was young I thought hierarchy was the only way to run organizations. Although in those days I’d barely heard of the great sociologist Max Weber, I unknowingly shared his belief that an organization couldn’t exist without a hierarchical chain of authority. Now, after over fifty years working in organizations of many different kinds, I’ve come to realise there are two other, equally important, ways of getting things done and that it’s vital for us to understand these other ways. We also need to understand why hierarchy always seems to trump the others." (http://www.triarchypress.co.uk/pages/triarchy.htm)

Next to hierarchy, Fairtlough distinguishes:

"heterarchy" and "Responsible Autonomy". Heterarchical systems share power--for example, a board that votes to decide issues, or different branches of government that have checks and balances through separation and overlap of power. Responsible autonomy is purer self-organization--i.e. it has no inherent structure. It distinguishes itself from anarchy by holding decision-makers responsible for the outcomes of their decisions.'

Description 2


Karen Stephenson:

"“an organizational form somewhere between hierarchy and network that provides horizontal links that permit different elements of an organization to cooperate whilst individually optimizing different success criteria.”


Carole Crumley:

heterarchy is “the relation of elements to one another when they are unranked or when they possess the potential for being ranked in a number of different ways.”

See the commentary on these competing definitions by Ross Dawson at http://rossdawsonblog.com/weblog/archives/2009/04/an_argument_for.html


Timothy Wilken:

"Heterarchy is a very different breed of organizational strategy than hierarchy. It is a horizontal system with only one level of organization. All are equal within the heterarchy. Individuals within the system see each other as being on the same level. “We are a team.” “Its like a family rather than a job.” “We all respect each other.”

Heterarchy is ideal for communication and discussion, because it allows for the sharing of responsibility and authority within an informal environment. Task assignments following open discussions, produce more cooperative working relationships. In a setting where associates feel valued, openness and integrity emerge. Individuals often take much greater roles in the tasks of their departments. In this setting, there is less conflict, and this usually results in improvement in efficiency, productivity, and quality of work-life. Heterarchy creates a feeling of oneness — a feeling of community. Members of a heterarchy strongly identify with the whole system. Morale and espirit de corps are optimized. Because heterarchy is highly inclusive, all feel that they are a part of the system. This is in strong counter distinction to hierarchy's exclusiveness. Individuals within heterarchy tend to protect the system. Individuals within hierarchy often ignore the system, and sometimes even attack it. The wholistic focus of heterarchy is on the needs of the whole organization. This wholistic focus leads to collective decision making and collective responsibility.

Decision making in heterarchy is slower. It takes time to gain the consensus of all the individuals within the heterarchy. However, implementation is much more rapid because the attitudes of those responsible for implementation have been considered in the decision making process. This not only eliminates conflict, but also encourages all members to feel responsible for the successful implementation of the decision. Anyone who has ever built a house knows it is much less expensive to erase lines on a paper, than to demolish mortar, brick, and stone." (http://www.synearth.net/Restricted-Confidential/OT.pdf)

More Information

  1. Karen Stephenson: Neither Hierarchy nor Network: An Argument for Heterarchy: examines how heterarchies, that bring together elements of networks and hierarchies, are the most relevant organizational structures for our times.
  2. Heterarchy and the Analysis of Complex Societies, Carole L. Crumley, Archeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association, Volume 6. Issue 1. January 1995