Flat and Egalitarian? Evaluating Worker Hierarchies in Software Companies

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2007-12-12

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The common view in the organizations literature is that, in the new economy, traditional worker hierarchies have now been replaced by flat, team-based arrangements. However, there have been few empirical studies that have tested this phenomenon. This paper seeks to fill this gap in the literature by evaluating the worker hierarchies of small and medium-sized software companies. By drawing on 61 in-depth interviews with workers and managers at 31 software companies, I assess several dimensions of organizational hierarchy. I found that worker hierarchies do not match our conceptions of traditional bureaucratic models, but formal hierarchies do remain, albeit with fewer layers. Management has relinquished decision-making on high-level decisions, while workers have gained more decision-making in production-level decisions and autonomy. I also outline the characteristics of new project-based hierarchies, which are more flexible worker hierarchies in which supervisory and managerial roles are fluid and fluctuating from one project to another.

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