Interest in reconsidering what “organizations” are and finding new ways in which they can work is rapidly growing, to the point that it is becoming a latent need in almost all realms of human activity.
From private companies, where transparency and social responsibility are in demand, but also extending to other kinds of organizations, including political parties, non-governmental organizations, and the government itself with its institutions, where renovation is clearly needed.
Evidence of this need is everywhere and is quite likely that you have already felt it from your experience in the organizations you belong. But it is also evident from the growing interest in new proposals for organizational design; from Holacracy, a few years ago, to more recently, the emergence of Teal Organizations.
What is an organization?
New “types” of organizations may be considered innovative regarding the internal mechanisms they promote, but they still tend to share a common factor with existing types (companies, nonprofits and alike): they are well-delimited groups of people pursuing their interests. A factor that is wired so deeply to organizations that could correspond to the definition of an organization.
Notice that the interests of the group of people behind the organization need not be selfish but can well be altruistic, as is the case of some nonprofits. The key point is that the interest of the organization, and its identity, is strictly coupled to those of the group of people behind it and its group identity.
At the same time, organizations do have (or at least should have) an underlying objective that transcends the interests of their members. This objective can be to create a product, in the case of companies, provide a service, in the case of nonprofits, or manage shared resources, in the case of political parties. Independently of the scenario, this further objective is what makes organizations relevant for those who are not its members, and, therefore, is what makes organizations valuable after all.
However, in most organizations, this underlying objective is secondary to the interests of the group of people behind them. At the same time, it is clear that an organization is only able to achieve its underlying objective if it can incentivize and coordinate the work and effort of its members towards that goal. Consequently, that ability: to incentivize and coordinate, becomes the ultimate feature that organizations should have.
Finally, it seems plausible to think that the definition of organization given above stems directly from our human nature; from our tendency to group and the need to identify ourselves as part of a group, and that organizations are just the reflection of that trend.
Is there another kind of organizations?
There are two key problems of linking organizations to a group of people:
- This necessarily classifies the rest of the people, those not belonging to that organization, as outsiders, creating an entry barrier that prevents them from participating in the organization activities.
- The people behind the organization may impose their interests above the organization’s underlying objective. Something that could be behind most of the problems we now see in existing organizations.
And so, these problems could, perhaps, be solved if the organization is, somehow, or at least up to some level, decoupled from the group of people behind it.
However, if the definition of organizations given above derives directly from human nature and our tendency to group together, there might be a conflict between our intention of redesigning organizations, and the natural expectations that people have of them. A conflict that gets worse by the fact that new technologies allow us to interact in unnatural ways, at scales that were not previously possible.
And yet the alternatives are limited. Innovation concerning organizational design can plausibly emerge only from the very existence of new technologies, driving us to a dilemma: should new organizations focus on nurturing its members and their natural needs, or should they prioritize their ability to reach the organization underlying objective?
Focusing on the later should maximize the value that the organization generates to the society, and, therefore, should be a fundamental consideration when trying to redesign organizations. Accordingly, the essential characteristics of future “organizations” (using quotes from now on) should then be:
- Instead of being well-limited, their borders should be smooth and liquid, blurring the frontier between members and non-members.
- Instead of defending the interest of their members, they should protect their interest, which would be, above all, to achieve their underlying objective.
Shifts at a personal level
As already mentioned, it’s possible that these open “organizations” don’t feel natural and it might be hard to interact and participate in them at first. There are a few mental shifts that will have to be done by a potential contributor when involved in open “organizations”.
Accept smooth membership
To achieve smooth membership, the traditional definition of “membership” should be updated. From a binary categorization (either a member or not-a-member) to gradual and continuous levels of membership, so that each person can be part of multiple “organizations” contemporarily and at different levels of involvement on each of them.
Accept quantified smooth membership
Smooth levels of membership would require a granular measurement of membership, instead of a binary one, and one way to achieve this is by using organizational tokens.
Smooth membership would also require participants to accept that their membership and that of the others will be quantified with more than one bit. Although that might look frightening at first, perhaps is also encouraging once participants see that, in exchange, they gain the freedom to participating in other open “organizations” at their will.
Accept asymmetric levels of rights and duties
Since membership relates to rights and duties within an organization, these rights and duties would also have to be smooth. Accordingly, participants of open “organizations” should accept that, the higher the level of membership, the higher the level of rights, and (just perhaps) the higher the level of duties.
Moreover, smooth membership allows participants to get involved in multiple open “organizations”. Sometimes, the objectives and interests of these “organizations” may not be aligned. Participants to open “organizations” would then need to accept that they, and other participants, might well be also participants of other organizations and learn ways to handle it.
Accept the order “participation then membership”
Participants to open “organizations” should learn to swap the order of events: from “membership then participation” to “participation then membership”. This mental shift is probably the hardest and most important one, as it is the only way in which open “organizations” will be able to grow.
Binary membership structures and its impact on our activities is so common and widespread that is even hard to notice, but it is around most of the things that we do. From learning at school to working at a company or participating in our local or national communities. In almost all occasions the order is clear: first you become a member of one organization (with an associated role), then you start interacting with it.
For example, you are first enrolled in school, or in university, and you then start attending classes. You are first hired at a company and become part of the team, and you then start devoting your time and effort to it. You first define your nationality (well that’s forced to you at birth) and you then start participating in your nation’s politics.
Exceptions to these scenarios are proofs of the rule: open online courses allow non-enrolled students to learn, gig platforms allow non-enrolled workers to contribute to a company, and they show the impact that technology can have on organizations.
Future “organizations”, and smooth membership will require its participants to overcome this precedence relation between membership and participation, and invert it: first you actively participate in the “organization” and you then increase your membership.
Examples of this can already be seen in open participation platforms like StackOverflow or Reddit, where, instead of having a complex evaluation and certification program to pre-categorize participants, they are allowed to participate freely, and gradually gain reputation within the platform.
Indeed, to let people overcome their natural fears, and get involved and contribute to an “organization” before he or she is granted membership, the reputation of the open “organization” and its current participants would be fundamental.
We are trying to develop a platform for open “organizations”. It is called CollectiveOne and wants to be an open “organization” itself.