Digital Workspace
December 8, 2023

From Railroads to Modern Software Tools: Unraveling the Evolution of Org Charts

Your organization likely has an org chart that shows how the company is structured. You may have referred to it on occasion to find someone’s supervisor or know who the right person to ask a question. But have you ever stopped to think about the origin of org charts? Who was the first person to think, “Hmm, it would be helpful to have a visual representation of the company,” and then sit down and make one?

You may be surprised to learn that org charts are more than 150 years old, but the first org charts were quite different from the types you may be used to. Before we get into how org charts came to be and how they’ve evolved over the years, let’s first explain what exactly they are and how they’re used.

What is an Org Chart? defines an organization chart (or org chart for short) as a “diagrammatic representation showing how departments or divisions in an organization, as a large corporation, are related to one another along lines of authority.” An organization chart is also sometimes called an organizational chart, organigram, or organogram.

Uses for org charts

Org charts have a variety of uses that help an organization run smoothly. Some of the things an org chart can help with are:

  • Displaying reporting lines within a company
  • Highlighting relationships between different departments and people
  • Supporting leadership in planning for the current and future needs of the business, such as budgeting and staffing
  • Providing employees with an understanding of how their work supports the company’s overall goals
  • Making onboarding more efficient by giving new employees a way to understand how the company is structured
  • Identifying internal experts for better communication and collaboration

Origins of Org Charts

The first org chart was designed by Daniel McCallum (and drawn by George Holt Henshaw) of the New York and Erie Railroad in 1854. At the time, it was one of the longest railroad systems in the world, but its size also led to issues with the flow of information. McCallum aimed to solve these problems with his org chart.

Unlike the pyramid-like hierarchical structure that probably first comes to mind when you think of an org chart (more on that type of chart shortly), the design of the New York and Erie Railroad org chart resembles a tree, with the roots representing the organization’s board of directors, the senior leadership in the place of the tree’s trunk, and long, winding branches corresponding to each of the railroad’s divisions and departments.

The first org chart was created for the New York and Erie Railroad. Source

However, more important than how it looks is how this org chart helped solve its communication issues by defining lines of authority. McCallum’s approach gave everyday scheduling and operational authority to the divisional superintendents who oversaw the railroad’s different branch lines. His reasoning, as reported in McKinsey, was that “they possessed the best operating data, were closer to the action, and thus were best placed to manage the line’s persistent inefficiencies.”

Evolution of Org Charts

McCallum’s org chart is certainly an invention that has become an indispensable part of business, but like with any great invention, others have built upon and improved it over time.

In 1917, the Tabulating Machine Company (the precursor to what is now IBM), developed the following org chart, which more closely resembles the org chart that most people are familiar with seeing today. This chart placed the directors and officers at the top of the pyramid, with all departments and employees within them flowing beneath.

The Tabulating Machine Company’s org chart from 1917 resembles the hierarchical org charts common today. Source

Although these top-down charts are the most common, some companies have developed their own org charts to better represent the way their business operates. One unique example was designed (perhaps unsurprisingly) by the creative mind of Walt Disney in 1943.

Walt Disney Studios’ org chart from 1943 shows the process of how a movie is made. Source

Rather than focusing on hierarchy, Disney’s org chart focuses on the business’s process – in this case, how a film is made. From story concept to script development, animation, editing, and more, the chart shows how every department within Walt Disney Studios plays a key part in creating the final film that appears on movie screens.

Org chart software tools

The first org charts created were hand-drawn: can you imagine how painstakingly complicated they were to make? And what about when there were changes? If you’ve ever been responsible for creating or maintaining an org chart, you’re probably feeling some anxiety just thinking about it.

Once computers and design software were commonplace in the workplace, it became easier to create org charts and update org charts as needed, but it was still a fairly manual process. Using software like PowerPoint, Google Slides, or Visio still requires a lot of dragging around boxes, resizing, and keeping your database up-to-date.

The future of org charts

As the workplace continues to evolve, so should the org chart. Constantly updating your org chart every time there are personnel changes is exhausting: don’t you want your org chart to keep up with you, rather than the other way around?

Luckily, software tools have evolved from simply helping you create an org chart to actually creating one for you – and keeping it up-to-date – by syncing with your data sources. These tools also go further than just showing how an organization is structured. With the ability to search for a specific person or skill, discover more about your colleagues beyond their job titles, and visualize breakdowns of your org’s talent, modern org chart tools can bring better clarity to your organization, helping get things done faster and more efficiently.  

Your 8 Step Guide to Selecting Org Chart Software

Learn how to select the right org chart software for your organization in this 8-step guide, including checklists, room for notes, and more.