The end of the organization?

Posted on Tuesday, 19 February, 2008 by


_Users_josienkapma_Pictures_FARA_thumbnails flowers
new ways of organizing ourselves: contributing and sharing, even while also competing for resources (photos under cc license by dsevilla on flickr)

Joitske suggested to vary blogging styles by debating a certain issue, taking pro and contra standpoints. I am all for that so here I go: taking a PRO standpoint to this essay by Michael Gilbert on “The end of the organization?” (found thru David Wilcox, who blogged about it here)

In this 1,5 page article Gilbert states that the predominant unit of organizing in civil society has been and remains the organization. What are the forces that shape organizations?
There are administrative and regulatory forces. Organizations are also defined by the patterns of communication, required to form and maintain the relationships within and between organizations and between organizations and others. Patterns of communication shape the structures of organizations and civil society.

Throughout the world, patterns of communication are changing; costs are plummeting, technologies evolve. As barriers are lowered, “people motivated communication” that used to be only small and local, can suddenly scale up. Those “new”, communication patterns are displacing and destabilizing the hierarchical and insular ones that characterize many organizations. It is by studying the changing patterns of communication that we will discover the new shape of civil society. Ecosystem thinking will be important.

The successful organization will look very different in the coming years.
Innovation is needed in several areas of practice:
(1) We need ways of making network structures tangible to those who want to support civil society, more presicely we need (2) language, (3) models to deal with permeability, (4) financial structures and (4) legal structures.

I am adopting the standpoint to agree with Michael Gilbert, so I think the successful organization will look very different in the coming years, for the following reasons:

I support the basic premise: Organizations are shaped by communication patterns >> Communication patterns are changing >> therefor organizations are changing.

I agree that indeed, communication patterns have been very important in shaping our organizations. Optimal numbers for aggregation and dissemination over costly communication channels, have determined organigrams. E.g. how far can a teacher’s voice and reign reach? and a manager’s?
In the past few years among those populating the “social web”, a revolution has occurred, which really has changed the principles of communication. The classic model of sender, medium, receiver, is overthrown: the medium is now free, the sender and receiver are all over the place and may be switching roles -or may be gone all together for elsewhere there seemed to be more value for them. This change in communication patterns, Web2.0, has been preluded by the “Web1.0” era, but has only recently really taken effect. The impact is starting to show, but will be felt stronger in coming years, in many areas, and the successful organization, by adapting to and embracing the changes, will look very different from the traditional organization.

The future is now: it is happening. Areas where the effects are most visible are the music industry, travel, media, newspapers. Their old business models were based on: having access to or power over information /communication channels. They sold their clients artefacts: a plane ticket, a CD of your favourite band; without granting them access to the channels. Web1.0 already gave access to a lot of information (e.g. musical tracks), but Web2.0 in addition made two-way communication basically free (in addition to music, peer-to-peer networks, musical taste profiling and social networking).

The organizational forms that emerge are different from the “traditional organization”. Some differences I can see:

  • people centred, not organization centered
  • organic, community like
  • vertical, hierarchical communication replaced by horizontal many-to-many communication
  • role switching / bottom up: no fixed positions
  • increased permeability, boundaries are fluid and flexible
  • personal and work identities mix
  • creative commons, building upon each others work, less defence mechanisms
  • fuzz and flux: much larger tolerance for messyness, abundance and constant change over time
  • identifying with people, causes, values, not organizations
  • use of multimodal communications; attracting transliterate people

Gilbert’s essay is about civil society organizations, but to me this differentiation is not very relevant. Civil society organizations, ngo’s, large corporations, SME’s and public entities: all alike are affected. Indeed, it seems as if the changes at hand bring the different organizational models closer together, resembling one-and-other more, morphing the models. E.g. large corporations are cultivating client communities, much in the same way as non-profits are, and as governments could be: to be able to dialogue with many individuals who are important to their continued success; for their mutual benefit. In changing constellations, we all are continuously exposing ourselves, to be connected, to earn and grant a “licence to operate”.

I also like the networked/ecosystem view for its hope and optimism. We can do better, we can use people’s motivation to move our world, we can collaborate and our organizations will change! I think it is amazing and inspiring that a critical mass of opinion makers (bloggers, web2.0 opinion leaders etc) have embraced this “view” and are acting upon it. I want to be part of that.

Lastly, I very much agree with the final points Gilbert makes about innovations needed to be able to make the transition. We need ways of making network structures tangible to those who want to support civil society. The lack of practical models or examples for networks, especially on how to deal with boundaries, finances or legal entity, are seriously slowing down the transition to more networked future.