Gerard Fairtlough’s triararchical typology of corporate power systems

This is a republication from January 22, 2006:

In my presentations on the emergence of the peer to peer mode of production, governance, and property, I always insist on the difference between decentralized and distributed systems, with P2P applying to the latter.

This differentiation is echoed in the theory of Triarchy, which makes the interesting distinction between three modes of power. Combined with the decentralized/distributed systems distinction this gives an interesting correspondence:

If hierarchy is the power system of centralized systems, then heterarchical power is the power system of decentralized systems and Responsible Autonomy is the power system of distributed systems.

This distinction is derived from the work on ‘triarchy’, distinguishing three forms of rule and governance,by Gerard Fairtlough, former CEO of Shell Chemicals UK and founder of biotech firm Celltech.

“there are three ways of getting things done in organizations and the combination of the three is called triarchy, which means triple rule. The Three Ways of Getting Things Done: Hierarchy, Heterarchy and Responsible Autonomy in Organizations.When I was young I thought hierarchy was the only way to run organizations. Although in those days I’d barely heard of the great sociologist Max Weber, I unknowingly shared his belief that an organization couldn’t exist without a hierarchical chain of authority. Now, after over fifty years working in organizations of many different kinds, I’ve come to realise there are two other, equally important, ways of getting things done and that it’s vital for us to understand these other ways. We also need to understand why hierarchy always seems to trump the others.” (source:

Next to hierarchy, Fairtlough distinguishes:

“heterarchy” and “responsible autonomy”. ”’Heterarchical systems share power”’–for example, a board that votes to decide issues, or different branches of government that have checks and balances through separation and overlap of power. ”’Responsible autonomy is purer self-organization”’–i.e. it has no inherent structure. It distinguishes itself from anarchy by holding decision-makers responsible for the outcomes of their decisions.

2 Comments Gerard Fairtlough’s triararchical typology of corporate power systems

  1. Avatardavid ronfeldt

    apropos the last two sentences: hmmm. is that a fair distinction the author makes between responsible autonomy and anarchy? wouldn’t many anarchists claim to believe in responsible autonomy? and aren’t there varieties of anarchism that do hold deciders accountable? besides, how can responsible autonomy be said to have no inherent structure if it is suppposed to hold decision-makers accountable?

    maybe the answers reside in the long version aout triarchy. but as i recall from an earlier glimmse at it, my questions persist. anybody got answers?

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