This post is dedicated to the memory of my former colleague and good friend Walter de Ruyter who passed away on 4 October 2021. The text is based on Walter’s many presentations and our close collaboration over almost 10 years.
Henri Fayol (1841 – 1925) was a French mining engineer who developed a general theory of business administration in his 1916 book, “Administration Industrielle et Générale,”. In that book, Fayol defined fourteen ‘Principles of Management‘, the ninth of which was the ‘scalar chain’. A scalar chain is ‘the line of authority from top management to the lowest ranks‘. In other words an organisational hierarchy.
In his 1937 paper ‘Relationship in Organization’, V. A. Graicunas showed that the number of subordinates in an organisation hierarchy could have an impact on a supervisor’s ability to control them (the ‘span of control’). If the span of control was too large, it could become difficult to maintain adequate controls. (Source: Graicunas, V. A., “Relationship in Organization (pp.183-187), Papers on the Science of Administration, edited by Luther Gulick and Lyndall F. Urwick, published by Columbia University’s Institute of Public Administration in 1937.)
Fayol had noted that communications should generally follow the scalar chain up and down, but in an emergency, there may be a need for a ‘gang plank’ or bridge between business areas to allow direct communication between subordinates at the same level.
Fayol’s model of communication became known as ‘Fayol’s Bridge’ or ‘hierarchy jumping’. It is commonly described in the following simple diagram.
Fayol stated that ‘It is an error to depart needlessly from the line of authority, but it is even greater one to keep it when detrimental to the business’.
(Incidentally, there is no shortage of criticism of this model, summarised neatly on this web page ‘Henri Fayol: Gangplank and criticism‘ dated 4 December 2020, accessed 5 October 2021.)
The problem with tacit knowledge
Almost every organisation has three broad levels of knowledge:
- Codified knowledge in formal policies and procedures
- Formalising knowledge in draft policies and procedures and other guidance.
- Tacit knowledge.
- Is often the operational and often dynamic expertise held by employees usually in lower levels of the organisation (‘subordinates’), the people who are ‘hands-on’ and actually ‘do the work’.
- Is the information in subordinate’s heads that doesn’t always make it into codified knowledge and often ‘walks out the door’ when the employee leaves.
- May be extracted from some employees (e.g., through formal interviews) and/or float ‘upwards’ along the scalar chain until it becomes codified. Typically this doesn’t always happen as lower-level operational knowledge doesn’t become codified organisational procedures, but remains as ‘local’ work practices.
Crossing the gangplank
The emergence of always-on mobile devices connected to the internet, messaging and social media apps in the early 2000s provided a simple but unofficial way for employees in the same organisation (and in others) to connect with each other across the scalar chain of command.
These unofficial methods of communication, using tools not controlled by the organisation, sometimes resulted in unease for supervisors (who were not included in the communications).
Disallowing ‘gangplank crossing’ in this manner by subordinates might, among other things, result in mistrust of or by subordinates and the imposition or enforcement of conventions (‘the way something is always done’) or ‘groupthink’ (Irving Janis, 1972), where the desire for consensus among critical stakeholders could override the ability to evaluate alternatives.
Groupthink means that individuals typically avoid raising controversial issues or alternative solutions, and there is a loss of individual creativity, uniqueness and independent thinking – sometimes the very source of a lot of tacit knowledge.
Communities of practice
In many medium to large organisations, and especially those with employees distributed across a wide geographical area, employees may benefit from access to operational tacit knowledge, especially – but not exclusively – in an emergency or to support often routine operational business decisions or activities that are not detrimental to business outcomes (and are not otherwise codified). A simple example might be to ask how to fix something.
In the mobile device period (mostly to around 2005), such knowledge might be shared by phone or other often asynchronous communication methods (e.g., email, telex, fax) that contained information that was largely inaccessible.
The arrival of mobile devices and in particular social media-type apps and messaging made these processes more synchronous and the information more accessible. But in many cases, employees were in touch with each other informally using non-official methods and/or applications (Facebook for example).
The new networks
Microsoft recognised the existence of these unofficial networks and began to acquire and/or develop or release new communication options in Office 365 – Yammer (previously a web based standalone system), Office 365 Groups, and then Microsoft Teams.
These new models had one thing in common – they tapped into these often lower-level employee networks, allowing people in those networks to communicate using Microsoft tools (to keep the content in-house) rather than allow third-party products.
Benjamin Niaulin from ShareGate described these new networks in a blog post from 2014 titled ‘Office 365 Redefines Knowledge Management‘ (accessed 5 October 2021. The article included the following diagram which illustrates the difference between the traditional scalar chain model and new responsive networks.
Whether they were part of a Yammer group/community, an Office 365 group using ‘conversations’ in Outlook, or using Teams chat or channel posts (and supported by content stored in SharePoint) employees now had the ability to tap into the tacit knowledge of other employees.
- Employees doing the same job on planes or trains could easily connect and communicate with each other.
- Employees with knowledge about something could promote this skill in their Active Directory profile to make it easier to find them.
- Group chats (in Yammer, Outlook or Teams) allowed a community of practice to share tacit and uncodified knowledge more readily.
And underneath all this activity, the Microsoft Graph monitored the connections, relationships and ‘signals’ between all the different elements of the environment, allowing it to make recommendations or suggestions. Microsoft Viva extends on this knowledge base.
Allowing employees to connect in this way supported the creation of communities of practice, where certain formal work conventions (‘we’ve always done it this way’) could be tested.
So, rather than an employee defaulting to a established convention, the employee (in conversation with others on a collaborative platform) could access other insights, capture and apply them through a consensus point, under a subject matter expert (SME) or lead. The SME could then, if appropriate, begin the process of formalising the knowledge up the scalar chain to become codified.
But this is not the end of the process, ideally, codified knowledge that guides operational practices should be reviewed regularly within these communities of practice, especially where there are new or emerging situations or exceptions.
Collaborative Knowledge Management (KM) communities create a transition point where there is a balance between what parts of information traffic needs to flow up and down the hierarchy model captured as codified explicit knowledge whilst capturing the information flow across the stream/matrix with acceptable controls on delegation through a consensus point.
Instead of being hidden away in emails or personal drives, communities of practice can create valuable and searchable content and insights that can be accessed by new employees who join the community. As noted above, the content in these communities will also be picked up via the Graph and provide additional rich insights into the knowledge gained in this way.