Resolved: Unix disrupts organizations by flattening hierarchies

You won't find an organization of any scale, say 500 employees and up for the entire period,which did not strengthen heirarchial controls with every new generation of Wintel products brought in - from PCDOS to Vista
Written by Paul Murphy, Contributor


Resolved: Unix disrupts organizations by flattening hierarchies

Be it resolved that properly managed Unix infrastructures disrupt organizations by reducing the importance of hierarchal reporting relationships as information conduits in an organization.

There are lots of subtle components to this. First, we need to agree that organisational hierarchies exist primarily as information conduits linking a small number of people at the top to a large number at the bottom: thus the king's mistress tells him she'd look good in a Paris gown, he tells his nobles about his new ambitions, they tell the army captains, who tell the guys that actually go out and invade France.

Or, in a more modern context, the retail scanner's output triggers a gown re-order, which ultimately leads someone in Suzhou to throw a few too many mulberry leaves into the silkworm cages - which ultimately leads to a price reduction at the scanner.

Basically both cases illustrate heirarchial information flows from customer to supplier, and both illustrate that organizations exist mainly as mechanisms whose role is the heirarchial distribution and collection of information.

In that context any good IT infrastructure acts as an organisational nervous system, transferring information from one part of the body corporate to another and so the question really is whether doing Unix right has a systematically different effect on the organization than some other architecture, say Microsoft client-server.

I say it does: specifically, that doing Windows right requires a strong hierarchy because organisational use contradicts the inherently single user nature of the Windows PC -while doing Unix right promotes sharing and thus peer to peer relationships among the people involved.

To see the first half of this, think about the first PC-DOS PCs entering user hands: the mantra, set up in opposition to central control, was "one man, one computer" -something that gave countenance to the lie built into the name "personal computer" for an organisational resource, and combined with the technology's lack of networking to set the thing's tendency to isolate users from one another in emotional concrete right from day one.

It's still largely like that - even with today's born again mainframe centralisation, stereo-typical acolytes, fully locked down desktops, and out-sourced helpdesks you get users pretending that their desktop computer is somehow more theirs than the organization's - a delusion that survives everything from DHCP boot and regular use of that PC as nothing more than an expensive and somewhat disfunctional terminal, to repeated management slapdowns for trying to install or run unapproved applications.

Bottom line: you won't find an organization of any scale, say 500 employees and up for the entire period, which did not strengthen heirarchial controls with every new generation of Wintel products brought in - from PC DOS to Vista.

What's going on with that is simple: the PC sales pitch still thrives on the one man, one computer idea - but in action that isolates individuals from each other, thereby contradicting organisational agendas, and that forces the organization to strengthen its internal controls in response. It's a classic negative feedback loop: the more PCs you bring in, the more pressure toward individual isolation, and the stronger countervailing organisational controls required for things to work.

Unix, of course, went the other way right from the beginning - As Dennis Ritchie put it: "What we wanted to preserve was not just a good environment in which to do programming, but a system around which a fellowship could form."

That doesn't mean every Unix installation acts as an information switch - most of the managers come from the windows/data processing world and haven't a clue - but it does mean that Unix naturally unifies where wintel naturally divides, and thus aligns itself with achievement of the information communications objectives underlying organisational design.

In practice what that means is just that organizations switching to Unix enterprise desktops find that they need fewer layers of management to control first IT, and ultimately the business itself.

The IT end of this is obvious: no desktop OS means no helpdesk, no reboot/reload cycle, no network mess, no complex data storage or backup, and no army of support techs to manage.

The absence of that management layer means that the people who do the work, can direct the work - meaning that users can communicate directly with the people who make things happen and the strict heirarchial controls used in other environments gradually gives way to a more relaxed and co-operative work environment.

Ultimately that puts users in control of IT - leading to things like Monday's resolution: immediate action by the responsible sysadmin or DBA on user requests that would otherwise have to be booted up a hierarchy and decided by a committee. It's the universal experience: put users in charge of IT without turning them into IT people and they do exactly what Dennis Ritchie and his colleagues had in mind: they form fellowships - people in production working with people in engineering, engineers working with procurement, sales people working with logistics people: all co-operative efforts formed in peer to peer links crossing organisational lines - and obsoleting the official hierarchy as the organization's primary conduit for information interchange.


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