How HR is going to redefine the organisational hierarchy

June 23, 2021

When Lars Schmidt took to the stage at the CIPD’s Festival of Work 2021, it was hardly surprising that he kicked things off by suggesting that we were approaching the end of the “command and control” way of doing things. After all, his views are hardly a secret – Lars is a well-known and well-respected writer, podcaster, and advocate for modern HR and people.

But what does “the end of command and control” mean? What will replace the traditional organisational hierarchy going forward? And what does HR have to do with all this?

The end of command and control

Wikipedia defines command and control as “top-down and hierarchical, with organisations divided into independent functional silos”. It is commonly thought of as the dominant method of management in the Western world, and is a practice originally propagated around the early 1900’s by Alfred Sloan and James McKinsey.

But while experts have been foretelling the death of command and control for some time now, nothing has pushed us quite as far, nor quite as fast, as the COVID crisis.

“Playbooks from pre-2020 are suddenly outdated” Lars told his audience, referring to the impact of the global pandemic on the way we work. But this wasn’t a message of doom and gloom. Rather, Lars sees the return to the workplace as a big opportunity for HR.

“Something I get the most excited about, is what happens when we can thoughtfully design our future work and life structures around not having to be in an office five days a week” says Lars. “My personal mission is to accelerate evolution in the field of HR at scale.”

So with everybody suddenly having loads of experience working with less oversight from superiors, more autonomy over actions, and less reliance on a central place of work, is a flatter organisational structure the answer?

Flatter hierarchies are proven to work better

It’s ironic really, that it was James McKinsey who propagated the early days of command and control. It’s ironic because the company he founded, is the same company to produce research showing that flatter hierarchies are proven to work better.

“McKinsey has some really good stuff around digital evolution, especially around flattening the hierarchy in order to move fast” says Lars.

Lars explains that the organisations which thrived and adapted the best during the pandemic, were those with these flatter structures. They were more nimble, more agile, and more able to respond to challenges. Whereas companies relying on a more authoritarian style of management, struggled to catch up.

And Lars believes that as we move into what many are calling the era of “hybrid working”, we may find we need to adopt a similar style ourselves, if we want to succeed. This means removing bureaucracy, and removing layers of top-down imperatives, in order to keep our business moving at a more modern pace.

The perception of HR is changing

So what does this mean for HR? Everything, according to Lars. You see, HR is going through a seismic transformation – and we’re watching it happen, right now, in real-time!

“If you look at the legacy of HR” he says, “we weren’t always perceived by the business as progressive and proactive and innovative. But now? We’re all of those things. We’re in an environment where we’re letting go of our past methodologies, and in the middle of a unique opportunity where we’re building something new.”

Anecdotally, Lars describes “legacy HR” as making up only around 20% of the field. This is the traditional reactive HR stuff involving transactional personnel administration. He says that we’re moving more into a world where HR needs to have more business acumen, be more proactive, and include themselves with the organisation’s wider strategy.

And with HR being increasingly involved in more business decisions, Lars says that now is the best time for HR to influence the organisation’s idea of what the ‘new normal’ should look like.

“Consider this a system reboot” he says.

The four C’s of redefining your hierarchy

So if the hierarchy is dead, and it’s HR’s job to invent a new one, what should that look like?

As with many things, there is no textbook answer to this. Only you know what your business needs! With that in mind, Lars says that whenever you are attempting to redefine your organisational structure, you should always pay attention to “The Four C’s”:

  1. Communication. Employees need to understand where they are, what the future of the business looks like, and what’s happening with their roles. Communicate frequently, and most importantly, pro-actively.
  2. Clarity. Make sure your communication is clear – because in the absence of clarity, people will make assumptions. You don’t want the void being filled with ideas that are incorrect and unrealistic.
  3. Co-creation. It is important to engage in ‘social listening’ within your organisation – get a real sense for what employees want. And if possible, bring them onboard to co-create your new structure with you.
  4. Community. Once you’ve established the above, you need to create a sense of community ownership around your new way of working. This requires being thoughtful and pro-active in your approach to HR.

Remember that a ‘flat hierarchy’ isn’t a single concept or idea. Just like ‘hybrid working’ isn’t a set structure. In fact, Lars says there are 7 or 8 different models of ‘hybrid working’. And what a ‘flat hierarchy’ looks like for your organisation, might be totally different for another. You’ll find key similarities – such as more autonomy for employees – but very different models.

Selling a flatter structure to old-school management

For many HR enthusiasts, the idea of a flatter management structure needs no sales pitch. However, many people in HR find themselves working with a senior management team who are ‘stuck in their ways’, for want of a better phrase.

Luckily, Lars has three great tips for ambitious HR professionals who want to push the idea of a flatter management structure to their seniors:

  1. Expect resistance. No matter how good your idea sounds when you pitch it in the mirror, you need to be prepared for the resistance you’re going to get when you pitch to senior management. You already know that employees tend to resist change – well, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
  2. Provide data and research. You can’t expect senior management to put in hours of research trying to prove a concept they don’t care about. But you can expect them to want solid data to back up your proposal. So go armed with objective research from strong sources, demonstrating the benefits of your plan.
  3. Share examples of success. Along with the objective data, you should mix a more anecdotal ingredient into your pitch, by bringing along a couple of case studies from companies which best mirror the kind of structure you’re hoping to achieve. If management can see successful companies that they respect making similar decisions, it may reduce resistance. Companies like Google and Valve are often popular success stories of flatter management structures.

You can learn much more about Lars’s views on how HR can transform teams to drive performance, by exploring his popular book: Redefining HR.

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