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Can Flatter Organisational Structures Work for Museums?

Most museums have a hierarchical management structure, just like the majority of private enterprises, big publicly listed corporations and government departments. Hierarchies in museums one could argue are often chosen for exactly the same reasons as the business world – because they are effective. With a straightforward hierarchy forming the management structure, everyone should know how the system works. Just like a military chain of command, decisions taken at the top level should reach the front line employees by being passed down through the management system. So why would any institution consider an alternative?

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What Is the Problem With a Hierarchical Management Structure, Anyway?

Given that so many organisations have a hierarchy, to many people, it may be something of a strange question to many people to ask what problems there are with it. Firstly, it should be said that museums and plenty of other public-facing institutions adopt hierarchical structures because of the undoubted benefits they bring. Human beings appear to feel comfortable working within them especially when they feel that they are valued no matter where in the hierarchy they happen to operate. That said, along with the advantages of a hierarchical management structure, there are downsides to consider.

To begin with, a hierarchy will always take a pyramid structure or something that is close to it. As such, there is only so much room at the pinnacle of the hierarchy. Necessarily, this structure means that only so many professionals can work their way to the top. Even if directors have a time limit at their time at the top, not everyone will make it. Although some people accept this as a normal part of liberal competitiveness, the structure itself is a limiting factor on career progression. Indeed, some groups which have traditionally been under-represented at the top of a hierarchy point out that it is the structure itself that tends to hold them back. Even today, few museums around the world have adequate representation at senior levels of women, ethnic minorities and disabled people, for example.

In addition to this issue, hierarchies tend to have several layers of managers between the decision-makers at the top and the museum workers at the bottom. This has two negative effects. Firstly, decisions made at the board level need to be filtered down through the hierarchy with every middle manager on the way putting his or her stamp on the directives that have been made, sometimes interpreting them in ways that dilute them. Conversely, information coming from workers at the grassroots of any organisation which may help it to succeed might find that it is reported upwards but it never reaches an appropriate level, either being lost or blocked within the hierarchy.

Although some senior managers recognise the problems of communicating up and down a hierarchy – and, therefore, try to bypass their structure by speaking over the heads of middle managers – such issues are common in large organisations of all kinds. In the museum sector, it has caused some professionals to question why such a management structure is in place at all.

If you also add to this the idea that hierarchies have been around a long time, sometimes without much change, then museums which have them can appear to be stuffy and old-fashioned. In turn, this can have a negative effect on recruitment. Where forward-thinking museum professionals see an opportunity to work in an institution which has fewer middle managers and a flatter structure compared with a potential employer that has a stricter hierarchy in place, they will tend to favour the former. In short, hierarchies can have a negative impact on recruitment and staff retention, something that has a cost implication for every museum and gallery in the world, of course.

How Do Hierarchies Impact on the Museum Sector Particularly?

According to George E Hein in his book, ‘Progressive Museum Practice: John Dewey and Democracy’, a flatter organisational structure is better for progressive educational activities. Hein points out that the democratic ideals of the famous American education reformer, John Dewey, have been very much in evidence in certain US museums which have adopted a flatter structure. In particular, he observes the example of the Boston Children’s Museum where a matrix system was developed for open learning in the 1980s, something that was also reflected in the management structure of the whole institution.

The argument for a flatter organisation within any traditionally hierarchical structure could be made within any business or public institution, of course. The museum sector is a special case, however, given its role as a public educator. In other words, advocates for less pronounced hierarchies in the industry say that flatter organisations are beneficial because they match the approach many museums are seeking in terms of public education. Whether or not, flatter hierarchies really lend themselves to better educational services that serve the needs of the public as a whole is an open question, of course. Nevertheless, fans of flatter organisational structures see the public education role of museums as something that makes the argument of doing away with traditional hierarchies more cogent, not less.

In addition, there is something else that makes the museum industry slightly different from the world of commerce which has traditionally favoured hierarchies in all but a few businesses and cooperatives around the world. This is the academic nature of many of the functions that museums undertake every day, of course. In this regard, the museum sector ought to be seen in a model that is closer to the university sector than the business world. Academics with similar qualifications are often seen as equals even if they work in very different niches. Cooperation between academics at different institutions is commonplace in the museum sector, something that is often unimaginable in competitive commercial sectors. This is a horizontal aspect of normal working in museums which simply doesn’t apply in many other industries. In such cases, hierarchies can work against this sort of work which relies on liaison and cooperation more than vertical reporting. As such, flatter organisational structures tend to suit museums and galleries more than they would do for rival companies, for example.

Will a Flatter Management Structure Improve the Functions of a Museum or Gallery?

When you look at the idea of a hierarchy versus a flat management structure, it can seem to be as though the two ideas are very, very far from one another. After all, one offers a vertical approach and the other is horizontally aligned. That said, few people argue for a completely flat management structure anywhere, certainly not in museums. What is being advocated for is a flatter management structure, one with fewer grades within the management team, not one without any structure whatsoever. Such an approach would likely lead to everyone at the grassroots operating in a free-for-all manner.

So, if you can imagine a traditional museum or gallery with two or three layers of its management structure ripped out, then the first thing you will notice is a closer connection between the board and ordinary museum workers. This should improve communications in both directions within the management structure, of course. In addition, you should be able to see decision making that is more autonomous and effective because both ends of the hierarchy are closer to one another with less room for misinterpretation. In addition, museums will be able to operate more quickly in change management, something that should lead to a cost-saving benefit over time, too.

With a shorter chain of command, more people in the institution should feel listened to and happier in their work, as a result, even if there are fewer opportunities to go up in the management structure because there are not so many management positions to be filled any longer. In places where such structures have been tried before – outside of the museum sector, in fairness – greater productivity has been measured. In short, institutions that take on a flatter management hierarchy tend to be leaner and able to operate more efficiently.

In some cases, an organisational structure that is flatter means achieving a greater sense of democracy and autonomy. With more voices being heard from below, so there is potentially more buy-in from rank and file museum workers. Does this mean that the functions of a museum will improve? In most cases, the answer to this question is an undoubted yes because people who work within a structure that values input from below and doesn’t simply expect grassroots staff to implement managerial decisions from high above unquestioninngly feel they have more of a stake in the outcomes of said functions. In short, stakeholders tend to go above and beyond the level of ordinary workers in hierarchies simply because they feel part of a team that is dedicated to achieving a goal.

What Steps Should Museums Take to Adopt a Flatter Hierarchy In Its Management?

Museums that want to consider a flatter hierarchical structure should consult on the idea before taking any sweeping steps. There may well be resistance to the idea, especially from middle managers who may, quite understandably, feel threatened by such a move if it means that they could lose status or even their museum job, as a result. The point about holding a stakeholder consultation is not simply to allay such fears but to address one of the central issues of a flatter organisational structure. This is, of course, that senior managers will be more open and more engaged with listening to what rank and file museum staff have to say. Only by paying attention to what employees think about restructuring the management of a museum or gallery will senior managers get a handle on what might work and what might not in each particular case. After all, once it is reorganised in a flatter structure any public-facing institution will be geared up for listening to its staff better.

The next step is to look at parts of a museum’s structure that works well within a hierarchy. In academic and educational aspects of a museum, a flatter structure may well bring about the aforementioned positive outcomes. Ask yourself whether this applies in autonomous or semi-autonomous teams or departments, too. For example, you may have an IT or human resources team which works very well within their current hiercarchies. The question to ask is whether and how these can be retained even if the wider structure is altered.

Finally, if you are removing management to make your museum flatter organisationally, then carefully consider which ones will go and which will remain. How will good managers be redeployed within the museum’s new structure? If redundancies are an inevitable result of altering the management structure, then it is probably best to turn to an expert consultant in this field in order to ensure all of your legal commitments in employment law are fully met.

In Summary

To conclude, flatter organisational structures can benefit many types of businesses. In the museum sector, there are additional benefits to consider due to the sort of work that is done in them. Of course, there are potential pitfalls in any reorganisation but the benefits will often outweigh the long-term disadvantages of doing nothing. Museum directors should conduct a cost-benefit analysis before making widespread changes to their existing structure.

About the author – Jim Richardson

Jim Richardson is the founder of MuseumNext. He has worked with the museum sector on digital and innovation projects for more than twenty years and now spends his time championing best practice through MuseumNext.

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