Hierarchical Incompetence

pointy haired boss

Hierarchical [hahy-uh-rahr-ki-kuhlincompetence is the often observed inability of organizations to achieve the aims set for them. This can be due to the oversimplification of issues and the loss of tacit knowledge about issues as they ascend a hierarchical organization.

There is often an inbuilt tendency for people up the hierarchy to discount information coming from those lower down, particularly if it questions conventional wisdom of the hierarchy. There is a tendency for lateral communication across the various departments, fiefdoms, etc. to be stifled either actively by management, or by self-imposed isolation.

Conversely, the hierarchies only easily deliver simple messages which cascade down to the lower levels. These messages tend to be inappropriate or counter-productive to the goals of the hierarchy and open to inadvertent misinterpretation as they arrive at the organizational ‘sharp end,’ as reality is inevitably much more complex than envisioned by those at the peak of the hierarchy. Often unofficial actions based on local tacit knowledge and lateral communications compensate for these inevitable communications and conceptual failures no matter how well-intentioned the original policies.

In the modern setting, lateral communication is encouraged throughout and across organizations in the interests of efficiency. E-mail and use of the resources of the Internet are one means of doing this. However, in order to prevent information overload Information Routing Groups (IRGs, systems to automatically encourage, mediate, organize, monitor and control these lateral messages to prevent participants being overloaded, and help and assist them in their prime professional tasks) can assist by guiding important information in particular Tacit knowledge to them.

The Third Reich was famous for bitter inter-departmental rivalries, personal vendettas and lack of cooperation actively fostered by Hitler himself, but these communications failures may have cost him the war. For example German fighters should have been fitted with long range fuel tanks to enable them to protect the Luftwaffe bombers for several hours over England, rather than the 20 or so minutes-worth of fuel they in fact had. Field-marshal and later Air Inspector General Erhard Milch had recommended months before the battle of Britain that cheap drop tanks should be developed in preparation.

However, hierarchical incompetence meant the long range fuel tank program never went ahead, with consequences for world history that could have been enormous had the Luftwaffe won the Battle of Britain. Interestingly none of this came out in the ‘post Match analysis’ by the German High Command. On the other hand, the Leigh Light, a special searchlight which was significant in defeating the World War II U-boat menace came about as the result of a Personnel Officer in the RAF designing and fitting the first light entirely unofficially.

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