Managing research environments: heterarchies in academia

By Joern Fischer

A little while ago, I recommended Graeme Cumming’s new work on heterarchies on this blog. Thinking about heterarchies implies thinking about system architecture in terms of (i) how hierarchical it is, and (ii) how connected the elements of the system are. This is interesting in ecosystems, in social-ecological systems … and I think also in academia!

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Heterarchies in academia

As a little thought experiment, let’s bring to our minds different academic environments that are combinations of networked vs. not-networked, and hierarchical vs. not-hierarchical. Most environments are mixtures, but some are close to one kind of stereotype, while others are closer to other stereotypes.

  1. Hierarchical, but not highly networked – the “guru” model. This type of academic environment is one of strong silos, which might be lab groups. Such lab groups don’t interact very much. Each of them is headed by a professor and responds to the head of department. Within the lab groups, too, there is a hierarchical structure. Postdocs sit between professors and PhD students, acting as intermediaries. However, in his world, different postdocs and PhD students probably work on different projects, and exchange among those projects might be limited – there isn’t a culture of strong collaboration within the lab, just within specific projects, as designed from the top down. I would argue that I have seen examples that are similar to this kind of structure in some settings.
  2. Hierarchical, but highly networked – the visionary facilitator model. In this world, there is a clear lead. For example, there might be a visionary head of department, or a professor strongly driving the agenda of her research group. Still, despite such a lead, interaction among lab groups, and researchers of all levels is encouraged – even when they work on slightly different things. Senior researchers have open doors for more junior researchers, but still provide direction and a level of “control”. Again, I would argue that this way of organizing academic workplaces exists in the real world.
  3. Highly networked, but without a strong hierarchy – the collegiate model. In this world, there is strong exchange among researchers, but no clear hierarchy. In my view, this could mean a lack of strong leadership. For example, there might be a collegiate environment, where people talk and exchange ideas – but nobody is there to provide vision and direction, or make some tough decisions. Yet again – this kind of place exists, be it in certain big projects (where nobody wants to lead) or even whole departments (that pride themselves of having a flat hierarchy).
  4. Not highly networked, and lacking a strong hierarchy – the individualistic model. This is a world where everyone fights for their own survival. Corridors are empty, and behind closed office doors are individuals who “do their thing”. Some do well, some don’t. They may or may not realize that there could be benefits from talking. Nobody provides a strong vision or direction. Each is in it for their own micro-world. Yes … this world, too, does exist in some environments in academia.

Given that all of these places exist, let’s ask some questions about them. For example, other things being equal …:

  1. Which is likely to foster creativity in the best way?
  2. Which is likely to generate the most academic impact?
  3. Which is going to be most pleasant to work in?
  4. Which is likely to survive major funding cuts in the best way?
  5. Which is most likely to survive re-structuring at the level of the university?

A next step of analysis then would be to think about how to get from one kind of system to another. This might be useful for research managers to think about.

For anyone who’d like to see an “official” version of these thoughts: A refined version (largely in terms of wording) has just been published as a response to Graeme’s paper in TREE.

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5 thoughts on “Managing research environments: heterarchies in academia

    • Thanks Jan — very nice summary, not only of group-grid theory, but also of Bert de Vries’ worldviews — who just commented on this blog a few days ago! Very timely, thanks. — J

  1. Great points. I think the academic/ecology/science blog network would also fit into this system, but I”m not sure which ‘environment’. I would think point 1, but perhaps it depends on the reader?

    • hmmm not sure I understand … I suppose it depends on the nature of interactions. If they are all directed to the “top” (here, the author, if I understand you correctly?), then yes, it’s the “guru” model. But if people were to discuss laterally (e.g. you replying to Jan, who commented above), then I think it would be quadrant 2. Am I right? Did I understand what you were getting at?

      • Agree, it depends on the nature of interactions. I meant that most blog readers follow an academic blog because they are part of the network (e.g. they know the academic, or research in a similar discipline). Readers from other disciplines/outside the network are less common or frequent, and often arrive from personal interest. And commenting/discussion with the authors & other readers is often related to the readers’ place in the network. I referred to ecology/science, but this also happens in humanities and other disciplines. So, as you say, all these places exist, but the way a person interacts with them will depend on their personal experience with that place/network.

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