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Leadership Organisations - BLOG
Phanish Puranam , INSEAD Professor of Strategy and Organisation Design, and Eucman Lee, Assistant Professor, Nanyang Technological University |

Today’s organisations are shaped more like Christmas trees than pyramids.

Can we design business hierarchies that work, but also ones that we like? The results of our recent reader survey suggest that the key is finding a way to flatten organisations without sacrificing effectiveness.

In our efforts to understand what we dislike about hierarchies, a few weeks ago we asked readers to take a short, anonymous survey about the shape of their organisation’s hierarchies. We are delighted to report that we received 246 responses from organisations in six different, major sectors, whose primary activities were located all around the world. The respondents themselves (based on their IP addresses) were located across multiple regions (see Figure 4) and were drawn from the upper ranks of their organisations. The organisations represented in the sample varied enormously in size and age. They also varied greatly in the number of layers in the hierarchy (from 1 to 33). By layers, we mean the number of bosses that stand between the most junior employee and the CEO. Figure 1 shows average layers for organisations in different size categories. We learned that the shape of hierarchies varies tremendously across organisations. But perhaps the much more surprising insight was about how it varies an institution.

Organisational hierarchies: Christmas trees, not pyramids

Most current implicit and explicit thinking about hierarchies within organisations assumes that the at any layer is constant. Our span of control is the number of direct subordinates that a boss has. We had strongly suspected that the assumption of a constant span is not correct, and the data strongly bears this out. Only 12 percent of respondents told us that the span in their organisations remained constant across layers (see Figure 2). The majority (39 percent) felt that there was no systematic pattern to the relationship between span and layers, and the rest were distributed into those who said span increased vs. those who said it decreased across layers within their organisations. This means that organisational hierarchies are, in truth, more like Christmas trees than pyramids, with the spans varying quite a bit at different layers of the hierarchy.

Why does this matter? The span of control of one’s superiors in a hierarchy is known to be strongly associated (positively) with the sense of autonomy an individual enjoys, and with the sense of proximity to the ultimate locus of power. The classics in organisation design (e.g. Urwick , Mintzberg ) have noted that larger spans necessarily imply less time spent supervising each subordinate, giving each employee a greater sense of freedom from interference from their superiors. (This will not necessarily lead to an effective outcome, but here we are focusing on perceptions of autonomy.) Larger spans also imply fewer layers, shortening the distance to the apex.

Large variations in the span of one’s superiors can therefore imply that individuals at different levels within the same hierarchy may report very different levels of satisfaction with their experience of the hierarchy. And this need not follow any systematic pattern as we move up and down the layers of a hierarchy. Satisfaction with the hierarchy is probably uncorrelated with levels, except at the very top and the very bottom.

How to delayer?

We also asked survey respondents what change they would make to their hierarchy’s shape, keeping the size the same. 29.2 percent said they would decrease layers and 21.5 percent said they would increase span. These are perfectly equivalent, of course: For a given number of employees, the only way to decrease layers in the hierarchy is to increase span, or vice versa . A third said they would do neither. In response to open-ended questions, 12 percent also emphasised delayering, while another 16 percent and 12 percent asked for more delegation and peer-to-peer interactions, respectively. The overall message seems clear: The inhabitants of hierarchies would like them to be flatter, with smaller power differences between the apex and lower layers.

As far as we know today, there are only two ways to delayer an organisation: Either shrink organisations, so that with a given span, the hierarchy will have fewer layers as the number of members in the organisation contracts; or keep the same number of members but increase spans of control.

So how can we increase spans of control without sacrificing effectiveness? Alternately, can we diminish power distances and enhance autonomy without changing layers (or sacrificing effectiveness)? This will be the topic of our last post in this series, which will be published soon.

Figure 1.

a. Average number of layers by organization size

Figure 2. Q:

Figure 3.

Figure 4. Regional distribution of respondents

Phanish Puranam
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May 21, 2018 · 4:43 pm

Manuscript Road Trip: (Re)introducing the GottschalkAntiphonal!

The Flight into Egypt, Walters Art Museum, MS W.188, f.112r

A few months ago, I wrote about the potential of Fragmentarium for cataloguing fragments and digitally reconstructing dismembered manuscripts.I concluded that post with the aspirational note, “ I really do think it’s time for Gottschalk to go digital,” in reference to the manuscript I reconstructed as part of my PhD dissertation at Yale in the early 1990s. That work was done using black-and-white photocopies, and, when published by Saucony Originals Mens Bullet Classic Sneaker Taupe VExcp
in the year 2000, black-and-white photographs. Now, 750 years after the manuscript was written, the Gottschalk Antiphonal has finally gone digital!
I am very pleased to introduce my Fragmentarium reconstruction of the Gottschalk Antiphonal, in glorious IIIF-compliant interoperable color:

Hello, Gottschalk!

I was inspired to add Gottschalk to Fragmentarium by my students’ work reconstructing other manuscripts and motivated to actually do it by my participation in a Fragmentology session at the recent International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. Thousands of medievalists from all over the world flock to Kalamazoo every May for this annual conference, listening to and learning from one another, greeting old friends, conferring with colleagues. My session was chaired by Elizabeth Hebbard (Indiana Univ.) and included fragmentology presentations by Julia King (Univ. of Toronto), Kayla Lunt (Indiana Univ.), Dana Kovarik (Univ. College London), and Elena Iourtaeva (Harvard Univ.). All six of us are working on fragmentology projects.I noted in my presentation that the Swiss-German word for “fragmentology” is “Schnipseljagd” (fragment hunting), which makes all six of us Schnipseljägerinnen (“Fragment huntresses”). That might just be my new favorite word.


The Schnipseljägerinnen of Kalamazoo

In my presentation I discussed the fragmentology projects completed by my students at the Simmons School of Library and Information Science, and I debuted my digital reconstruction of the Gottschalk Antiphonal.

The Gottschalk Antiphonal, with Gottschalk’s distinctive script, neumatic notation, marginal tonary-letters, and purple-and-red penwork initials (BRBL MS 481.51.6v)

The Gottschalk Antiphonal was written and illustrated in the late twelfth century by the scribe/artist/monk Gottschalk of Lambach and was used at the Lambach abbey for several centuries. The manuscript is a choirbook for the Divine Offices recited throughout the day, preserving liturgy for specific days throughout the year. Because it is a choirbook, it includes interlinear musical notation: predating the development of the four-line-staff and Gregorian notation, the Antiphonal uses unheightened neumes in the St. Gall style, with tonary-letters (indicating something akin to the “key” of each chant) in the margins. Gottschalk’s distinctive artistic style permeates the manuscript, with penwork initials in purple and red.

While Channels is built around a basic low-level spec called ASGI , it’s more designed for interoperability than for writing complex applications in. So, Channels provides you with Consumers, a rich abstraction that allows you to make ASGI applications easily.

Consumers do a couple of things in particular:

Of course, you are free to ignore consumers and use the other parts of Channels - like routing, session handling and authentication - with any ASGI app, but they’re generally the best way to write your application code.

Basic Layout

A consumer is a subclass of either channels.consumer.AsyncConsumer or channels.consumer.SyncConsumer . As these names suggest, one will expect you to write async-capable code, while the other will run your code synchronously in a threadpool for you.

Let’s look at a basic example of a SyncConsumer :

This is a very simple WebSocket echo server - it will accept all incoming WebSocket connections, and then reply to all incoming WebSocket text frames with the same text.

Consumers are structured around a series of named methods corresponding to the type value of the messages they are going to receive, with any . replaced by _ . The two handlers above are handling websocket.connect and websocket.receive messages respectively.

How did we know what event types we were going to get and what would be in them (like websocket.receive having a text ) key? That’s because we designed this against the ASGI WebSocket specification, which tells us how WebSockets are presented - read more about it in ASGI - and protected this application with a router that checks for a scope type of websocket - see more about that in Routing .

Apart from that, the only other basic API is self.send(event) . This lets you send events back to the client or protocol server as defined by the protocol - if you read the WebSocket protocol, you’ll see that the dict we send above is how you send a text frame to the client.

The AsyncConsumer is laid out very similarly, but all the handler methods must be coroutines, and self.send is a coroutine:

When should you use AsyncConsumer and when should you use SyncConsumer ? The main thing to consider is what you’re talking to. If you call a slow synchronous function from inside an AsyncConsumer you’re going to hold up the entire event loop, so they’re only useful if you’re also calling async code (for example, using aiohttp to fetch 20 pages in parallel).

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