Hierarchies are the "antithesis of agility", but organisations hoping to become more agile must be aware of the challenges to achieving flatter structures, a workforce planning expert says.
In an agile world, cross-collaboration is "critical" and hierarchy poses a major obstacle, he says, and particularly in bureaucratic organisations, there is evidence of "excessive hierarchy".
However, "for those organisations wanting to become more agile, they have some challenges to overcome in terms of going to flatter organisations and increasing spans of control; reducing that hierarchy".
Eliminating hierarchy altogether isn't necessarily the right approach, Beames notes. "There are some traps in terms of going to 'flat' that can be dangerous," and some organisations can swing the pendulum too far and end up with an "excessive tendency to flatness".
Perhaps most importantly, flatter structures can make it more difficult for employers to understand the value that various roles contribute to their organisation.
Yet role clarity – making choices about the importance of roles to business outcomes – "constitutes the essence of strategic workforce planning", Beames says.
"If we get that wrong then separating value from talent potentially results in a disconnect, and it may be the case that there's no investment in some roles and an underinvestment in others because there's a lack of recognition of how roles create value in the organisation," he says.
One of the traps in assessing role value is "our old friend hierarchy", he notes. "Often people are influenced by hierarchy in the organisation and attach a certain importance to the role depending on where it sits in the organisation chart."
By way of example, Beames says he recently worked with a large employer that had four roles sitting two levels below the CEO, and realised these roles were more critical than one of the roles that reported directly to the CEO. This is an example of how hierarchy can be "misleading", he says.