Theory of organisation design

On the design and practice of community-serving organisations

I was invited to present a keynote at PySangamam last week. Since I have been grappling with the design of community-serving organisations for a while, I spoke on that. This post is an extended version of the talk.

For context, I’m a co-founder of HasGeek (est. 2010), a company that hosts technical conferences; of the Python Software Society of India (PSSI) (est. 2013), a non-profit that represents the interests of Python programmers; and of the Internet Freedom Foundation (est. 2016), a non-profit that advocates for digital rights in the wake of the SaveTheInternet movement for net neutrality. This post uses personal examples to set the context for the next post, a personal update.

Earlier this year, the Python Software Society of India (PSSI) notified the organisers of PyCon India that it would not be able to assist as it was shutting down, and the organisers were now on their own.

PSSI’s shutdown notice

This extraordinary event has a crucial context: PSSI was established specifically to host PyCon India. How did an organisation that existed for a specific purpose come to be so severed from that purpose that its existence was no longer relevant? PSSI’s fate highlights a worrying tendency to go astray I’ve seen more than once, so here are my principles for how a community-serving organisation should define and conduct itself. Comments are welcome.

1. An organisation exists to provide a service to a customer

The more well defined the service and customer are, the better for the organisation, because it provides a basis for any entity to understand their own relationship with the organisation.

Consider the example of the SaveTheInternet movement of 2015. At the core of it was a website that allowed anyone to send an email to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), with template content in the prescribed format, and for the limited purpose of an ongoing consultation. That website was a service, and it was created, maintained and publicised by a well-organised team of volunteers. An organisation is any organised group of people. Organisations may seek legibility by adopting a name and a legal registration with attendant compliances, but these are not necessary to offering a service.

The clarity of service allowed someone who disagreed to be articulate about the basis of their disagreement.

2. Organisations provide voice via their service

The website may have merely provided an email template, but the million emails sent through it represented a million individual voices. Any well defined service provides a means for someone to express themselves.

SaveTheInternet was very limited in the expression it allowed: send one of a small handful of email templates, or write your own, unassisted. Compare with say, where you’re reading this, where anyone can express themself in any way they please, as long as it’s mostly text (and not video, audio or pictorial). The more flexibility there is in the form of expression, the more we recognise the service as enabling expression.

A bus or train from point A to point B may not seem like expression, but it does let you express your desire to travel between those two points. A bus or train company that serves multiple routes affords greater expressiveness, leading to the identity of a traveller.

The Python programming language allows expression in the form of code to program a computer. Python may be thought of as a service delivered by an informal organisation headed by a BDFL. Combined with the Cheese Shop, a service of the Python Software Foundation, it allows for an incredible variety of expression that has resulted in Python growing into one of the largest and most well regarded programming communities today.

3. A community forms from the voice of users of a service

The million emails sent via SaveTheInternet represented a million voices who were… not experts on net neutrality. They did not need to be. TRAI did not even conclude that particular consultation. Those voices were expressing individual desires for protection of their rights, and their collective voice was heard everywhere, from the global media to the halls of Parliament.

Would a million emails have been sent if there was no SaveTheInternet website offering an email template? Unlikely. Did people care for their rights even before there was a way to send an email? Most certainly.

I used to think of organisations as serving existing communities, and of communities as groups of people with a high degree of interpersonal connections. Now I believe organisations create the communities they serve, giving them a definition distinct from the other communities they source membership from. All communities are subsets and intersections of other communities, and are defined by shared interests and mode of expression.

In SaveTheInternet, emails were sent privately. The collective voice was underground, invisible to everyone except TRAI. We made it visible using the device of an email counter that posted scheduled updates.

This afforded independent commentary from outside the organisation, such as this sample:

Do note how much of this commentary is on Twitter, a service with a community that is a superset of what we had.

Communities are usually understood to represent a network of interpersonal relationships, but this is not necessary to the definition. At its most basic, a community represents a group with shared interests. In real life, voice is an innate human quality — anyone can speak to the persons around them — but in any other media interpersonal voice must be provisioned as part of the service. This can range from a newspaper’s “letters to the editor” column to Twitter’s anyone-can-tweet approach.

4. Organisations will seek self-preservation

It’s fine to say an organisation should only be concerned with delivering a service, but how does it afford to do that? Where do the necessary resources come from, and how is the service defended from competition or decline? Organisations can and should engage in any activity necessary to consistently delivering the service.

This has a tendency to go bad very quickly when the service is poorly defined. One only needs to look at the case of UIDAI, an organisation that offers the Aadhaar service, which enables the state to “see” the citizen by demanding and authenticating an Aadhaar number. Since “being seen” is not something individuals necessarily want to avail of (it is quite literally surveillance), UIDAI needs to pass this off as somehow being empowering to the citizen, indulging in all manner of subterfuge from massive advertising spends to police FIRs against sceptics.

UIDAI regularly claims to be India’s most trusted identity document, speaking on behalf of their community. This leads us to the next point.

5. Organisations should not confuse themselves with their community

I’ve stated on multiple occasions that I had almost no awareness of net neutrality before SaveTheInternet (sample). My participation in the campaign was not as an expert. I operated on a fuzzy understanding of what sort of harm was possible, with a desire to help others speak: first via the website, and later in other fora.

The unfortunate story of iSPIRT is worth recounting here. That organisation formed as a mutual support forum for tech entrepreneurs, and heard a recurring cry for building businesses that could be defended from foreign competition. It soon took to replacing their voice with its own, promoting the “India Stack” suite of tech platforms as a defence against “digital colonisation”. Did its community support this agenda? iSPIRT claimed it did, and that reputation opened many doors, while the murmurs of disapproval remained suppressed until the shock of the 2017 trolling incident. iSPIRT has since lost its original community and now advocates for its India Stack agenda.

PSSI also tended to claim mandate for representing all Python programmers in India, even when it was not serving them. This led to PyCon India drifting away, and outright rebellions such as the PyCon Pune event.

Any organisation that doesn’t undertake regular community-led audit of its services faces the risk of going astray like this. A benevolent dictatorship is a temptingly convenient option for unifying the community into a single voice, but it’s only one step away from a tyranny.

6. Organisations should not use the act of god

If a community comes to exist via a service offered by an organisation, then the organisation plays the literal role of god due to the control it exerts over the service. Services should have well defined expectations of how they do or do not work, and organisations should resist the temptation to violate these expectations on a case-by-case basis for their convenience.

In real world religions, the voice of god manifests via a mortal entity like a prophet or an oracle. Society engages with this voice via the mortal carrier. The idea of a god simply popping out of the sky to intervene is so jarring that the ancient Greeks even invented the plot device of the deus ex machina (“god of the machine”) to represent it.

Consider the case of the Android operating system. At one level it is the code that powers your phone, but at another level it is also a service that makes the phone feel personal and in your control, with the apps you install being guests in your space. This expectation is what makes an in-app ad or non-removable app so intrusive.

Since in reality Google exerts near absolute control over Android, your own sense of control is an illusion that Google takes great care to maintain. (The same is true for Apple and iOS.)

In August 2018, a number of users discovered UIDAI’s phone number in their contacts despite not having saved it. The discovery set off a wave of panic across the country as no one was able to explain how the number came to be saved in nearly all Android phones. Had the phones been hacked? Had UIDAI ordered it to be inserted, in violation of personal space? Google eventually confessed to a poor choice it had made years prior that was only noticed now. By inserting a number into your contacts, Google violated the service contract of your contacts being exclusively yours. An act of god. If they could do this, what else could they do? How safe is Android now?

Or take the case of Facebook in December 2015, when it rallied users in India to “Save Free Basics”. TRAI did not take kindly to this, calling out Facebook’s misuse of its power, but several users also panicked. Facebook used to be a space for interactions with friends, but the organisation behind it had butted into the service to demand favours for itself. Was it your personal space anymore?

Our third example is WhatsApp, which appears to have a much better restraint over playing god. Faced with charges of doing too little to counter fake news, WhatsApp delivered two seemingly trivial measures in 2018:

  1. A special tag on forwarded messages that is a part of the service contract and is not judgement on the content of the message, and
  2. Newspaper ads educating WhatsApp users on how to identify fake news.

The latter led to much criticism. Since WhatsApp has full access to all their customers, what prevented them from broadcasting within their own app, thereby reaching 100% of users instead of a handful of newspaper readers? WhatsApp’s difficult choice is best understood if you consider an in-app broadcast as an act of god. If WhatsApp can send you one message, however well intentioned, will they also butt in to send other messages? Are they targeting you by watching who/where you are? Is WhatsApp a safe space for your discussions with your friends anymore? The sanctity of personal space cannot be violated for the organisation’s agenda.

At the other end of the spectrum, conference organisers regularly insert themselves into the agenda of their events. The conference becomes less about magnifying individual voices and more about justifying the agenda of the organiser.

Don’t use the act of god option. It is tempting, but harmful.

In the next instalment, I will examine how these principles have shaped my thinking around the organisations I am involved with. Here it is: