Networks, organizations, and leadership

I’m writing a response post as part of a course in which I am currently enrolled, DPI-659: Media, Politics, and Power in the Digital Age, taught by Nicco Mele. This post seeks to summarize, analyze and synthesize the first six chapters of Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky alongside some of our other readings.

The central idea that Clay Shirky explores in his book is this: our world is becoming more networked — what happens next? These networks, largely empowered by digital technology and the internet, are unleashing the power of group action. The networks are connections of people, and they vary significantly, from traditional social networks like Twitter today, to more informal ones, such as a story Shirky references of people sharing pictures from a Mermaid parade in 2006. In this blog post, I’ll summarize some ideas from his book and then turn to what that might mean for government organizations.

Here Comes Everybody

I can distill three main ideas from the first part of the book:

  1. New tools — digital tools, such as social media — allow people to form groups in new ways. This affects everything from political revolutions to playlists of music at the neighborhood block party.
  2. Everyone is empowered to create, and filtering is no longer an elite function. The New York Times or other similar institutions no longer hold the power of who sees what. Instead, power rests in the hands of creators, and the barriers to creation are much lower. (For example, see this blog.)
  3. The new tools can lead to collaborative production, not merely communication. This can erode the “institutional monopoly” on production. I particularly like the idea of “the former audience,” which is that the audience is now no longer passive and is instead engaged in production.

Applying the ideas to organizations and government

Despite the book’s publication date of 2008, this conversation still resonates today. In particular, I have come across some writing that attempts to apply these ideas to organizational design. Last year, Tim O’Reilly published a piece on Networks and the Nature of the Firm (which was also previously given a treatment by Ekso Kilpi0). O’Reilly’s article revisits of Coase’s theory of the firm, which Shirky mentions multiple times in his book. Both O’Reilly and Kilpi suggest updating the firm structure for the networked age.

What is the new role for government in this? I am particularly interested in how government can restructure its organizational chart given today’s networked world and some of the main ideas above. I have seen some sparks in this area. I am curious to see how the Responsive Org community and the work of organizations like August and The Ready can be applied in the government context. The “responsive” organization world seeks to help teams of people work together in ways following the agile methodology of the technology world. Part of Washington State government even tried experimenting with “holocracy,” one of the responsive methodologies.

I believe that one of the ways these responsive organization approaches can work well is by cutting down on interoperability, or the idea that some systems don’t talk to each other. In particular, there is much human and bureaucratic interoperability in government that we must address before we can event get to technological interoperability. Even adopting responsive approaches, such as a focus on purpose and greater transparency, won’t get us all the way to seamless organizational practices in government.

A leader.

What is the role of leadership?

One place where I believe Shirky’s book has fallen short (so far! Only up to chapter 6), is around the topic of leadership. To expand on this, I believe that individual leadership must play a role in taking some of the best parts of distributed networks into the strictures of a firm or organization chart. Shirky does mention individuals throughout, though I don’t feel he emphasizes sufficiently their role in galvanizing networks of people to action.

I believe people, even in distributed networks, are drawn to individual leaders. I also believe those leaders have important roles to play in setting the direction for that network, particularly as it seeks to adapt or replace a traditionally hierarchical organization. These leaders don’t even necessarily need to be high-powered political leaders — they can simply be team leaders or peers setting an example. In the same way that our fundamental nature as social animals makes us well-suited for social networks, I also believe we are well-suited for social followership. Many of the social networks have crucial and well-known leaders at their heads, such as Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia or perhaps even Evan from Shirky’s opening story of a lost phone. I look forward to exploring the role of leaders in any act of network galvanization. In particular, what role do they have in transforming any government into a more naturally networked organization?