Food chains and food webs

Chapter five of The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual mentions how today’s businesses adhere to a particular type of togetherness. Sadly, this sense of being together has nothing to do with human connections and relationships.

According to Weinberger (2001), modern business has chosen to define togetherness as a HIERARCHY. It is what they believe links the people in an organization—not the ties and interaction managers and employees share in the workplace but the structured placement in a chart which reminds the people of who is superior and who is subordinate.

As Weinberger further explains, hierarchies have two distinct attributes.

  1. It has a top and a bottom.
  2. The top is narrower than the bottom.

Their definition of togetherness, huh?

These features are best illustrated in organizational charts. Org charts mirror hierarchies. They are structured. Positions and roles are defined. One’s responsibilities are limited inside the box where he is positioned. Likewise, his power is determined by how high his box is from the base of the chart. No two boxes overlap. The only thing that connects them is the lines neatly positioned between their edges. Apart from these, boxes and people inside the boxes share no other connections.

Woooah. Stiff. Harsh. Awful. Org charts are pretty like food chains. Don’t you think so? 

 

Business food chains

We learned in grade school that food chains are representations of relationships between living things in an ecosystem. Recalling this concept, we could actually compare the food chain diagram to organizational charts and hierarchies. How?

  1. Food chains illustrate the relationship between two living beings: predators and preys. Predators feed on their preys. The act of consuming is one-way. It’s always predator-eats-prey. Preys can never consume their predators.
  2. In food chains, there is always a top consumer. The ultimate predator consumes everyone else in the ecosystem. This includes weaker predators and all other preys.

it's the chain

Similarly, the hierarchies described by Weinberger in businesses have these elements. There are preys and predators and a top predator in an org chart. Of course people in the organizations do not literally feed on one another. (Well, our bosses and co-workers do not serve as good food. Some are utterly indigestible.) But the consuming act is in the power play. Business predators whose cages are on the upper part of the org chart munch or gobble up their preys through demands and orders. Do this. I need it today. 12am sharp. What did you do? It’s not good enough. Repeat it. Likewise, there is only one box on top of the org chart. Only one ‘super predator’—the ‘bossest boss’. Ultimate control and power is in his hands.

But we’re sick of this picture of hierarchies. We’re tired of org charts. We challenge business food chains. We are building wider and networked food webs.

 

Organizational food webs

Our grade school lesson on food chains extends to the concept of food webs. A food web is a broader diagram of several food chains illustrating a complex system of life forms in an observed environment. Now, why are food webs better depictions of business relationships than food chains? I would give two reasons, you may add more.

  1. Food webs are not unidirectional. These are overlapping networks of producers and consumers. An organism may be connected to another organism in a variety of ways.  
  2. Food webs, unlike food chains, have no top consumer. Predator and prey roles are not fixed. A predator may become a prey to other predators. And a prey may become a predator.  

here's the web

Likewise, with the impact of Web 2.0 and the Net Gen in a collaborative economy, today’s businesses are putting a premium on interrelatedness. Connections are not limited to vertical or horizontal links as what is depicted in org charts. Organizations are now acknowledging diagonal and even circular lines of communication. It is no longer one-way or two-way exchange of information. It is multi-directional interaction and collaboration. Also, communication roles are no longer fixed but rather fluid. Anybody can create content and give information. Managers do not just give commands and subordinates do not only obey. Under specific circumstances, they share ideas and collaborate.

 

Endnotes

Businesses are adapting to the forces of a new economy. They are reconfiguring stiff organizational charts to a more flexible game play. They leverage on diversity, mobility, and interconnectivity. The business ecosystem is no longer bound to food chains. They are now operating on food webs.

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2 comments
  1. I hate org charts. They scare me as much as the “prof-student” relationship does. But I’m glad that this is slowly changing now. 😀 Profs and students can be friends and equals on Social Networking Sites and some Professors like Sir Villar just sit in class like us students and talk to us like we are equals. 🙂 I’m glad because it is no longer one way, it is no longer top-down. We still learn from our bosses (profs) knowing that they learn from us as well. 🙂

  2. In a more ideal business set-up, we would indeed be able to gain leverage through diversity, mobility, and interconnectivity. We’ve been seeing it in a lot of companies lately. Yet for a business environment like the Philippines, I still see the need for formal organizational charts. I think of it as similar to the traditional notion that there is one best way of doing a job. People just seem to need to have measurements of everything – we try, and we try very hard, to find out what exactly we have to do, how exactly we have to do it and so on. The processes of communication made this point of view widely accepted for many decades. Surely it will do the same for the new organizational models as well.

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