With so much attention on the potential for web 2.0 technologies to “flatten” the organizational hierarchy, and excitement that meritocracy will rule the day, how are the downsides to a flat organization being anticipated and dealt with?
As a useful anecdote, consider democracy in the United States. The perpetual political issues one might argue are inherit to a democratic system: influence of money on the political process, integrity of public officials, and role of government, could also have parallels in a hypothetical “flat” organization. Its important to note that these issues might not be a aberration of a democratic system, but structurally inherit to a democratic system.
Lets recall for a moment, the wisdom of Einstein that we “can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Using web 2.0 tools and techniques to design Management 2.0 will create challenges that these same tools cannot solve.
So where do we begin? First, we recognize a few parallels in the real world. I’ve already alluded to how features of Web 2.0 mirror features of our democratic system, in that both systems allow for voices of entire populations to be heard, and acted upon. A third system, whose study will offer us insight, shares similar features, and that system is described in biology texts as the theory of evolution. Evolution is more than simple “survival of the fittest,” it’s a successful algorithmic cycle whereby organisms change over time.
The key components of evolution compose of 3 steps:
First, Variation in a population:
For our organizational design case, that which varies can be anything: ideas on how to solve a problem, skill levels of the various players, even entire organizations and functions. It doesn’t matter exactly what varies, just that things do vary. For the sake of discussion, we will call whatever happens to be varying an “element,” and the collection of elements different from one another the “population”
Second, Recombination and Mutation of the Populations Elements
In biology, this is typically sexual reproduction. In organizational design, this will be the natural result of various ideas floating around, being combined together and broken apart.
Before I get to the third part, let me explain how these two elements pertain to our discussion of Web 2.0 and democracy. In a democratic system, everyone has their own ideas, there is variation, and that variation is allowed to exist. Additionally like ideas are allowed to mate with other like ideas to form ideologies, political parties, and compendiums. Web 2.0 is an accelerator to the recombination and mutation process. The faster we can communicate our ideas to one another, the quicker they can combine and re-combine. With this in mind, lets move to the third step of evolution.
Third: Natural Selection
Without getting too complex: collections of genes within an organism affect the attributes of that organism, variation and recombination causes that organism to be different from its brothers and more or less able to survive. Poor combinations of genes will lead to weak organisms, which will be more likely to die before passing those genes to the next generation.
For our discussion, the attributes of an organization will be dependent on the various elements that make up the organization, whether that be a set of guiding principles, ideas, or whatever elements we consider to affect the properties of the organization.
Putting it together
The primary difference though, is that organizations and their properties are not physical. We don’t have to subject an organization to the harsh realities of nature, or even the marketplace if we don’t want to. A collection of ideas, is no more than a collection of ideas. We can judge them however we like, and select for them however we like. These “idea organisms” never have to die.
The above discussion may seem plainly obvious: of course ideas are varied, float around, and get acted upon or not. Of course some random sets of ideas are stronger and better formed than others.
The important thing to remember is that evolution works because nature is unyielding. Natural Selection is not a democratic process, nature is the ultimate tyrant. Plucking collections of ideas from the ether, or the web as they form, and voting on them, or crowdsourcing an implementation strategy won’t work. Doing so will only result in a recombination of ideas, one of which will be picked (with no rational basis) and the illusion created that some sort of meritorious selection has taken place.
The hack isn’t so much what to do, but what not to do. The structural deficiency of a democratic system is its persistence: various interest groups can fight against one another never making progress, and political parties can create endless gridlock. The result is that one faction “does what it takes” to usurp power, and public integrity and trust are compromised. Political power and money are the chief influencers and decision makers rather than reason, or national interest. Sound familiar? Aren’t businesses and non-profits run more by political power of the players, or the interest of the shareholders rather than what is good for those from which the ideas came in the first place?
A management entity will serve as a "selector," with the sole power and authority to dismantle entities within the system rather than work with them or direct their development. Management politics will be reduced to rational decision making at the level of the ecosystem, based off of a predefined framework: whether that be profit, art, charity, love or some other intrinsic human desire. "selector" management will not have a stake in any organizational elements.
Currently our "selector management" is the corporation, and our ecosystem the marketplace. This isn't necessarily the only "selector" or ecosystem available for us to choose to participate in. What others are there, and how might web 2.0 and management 2.0 bring them out?