Institutions versus Collaboration

I watched a great TED talk on youtube by Clay Shirky called “Institutions versus Collaboration.” The link was forwarded to me by a colleague working to introduce wiki technology at his government organization and wanted to learn about my experiences doing the same. The Shirky talk is from 2005, but the issues raised are very relevant today, particularly when it comes to using social media in the government and other institutions.

I’ve summarized the main points for those who don’t have time to watch the video.

Institutions: Cost and Imperatives

First, the institution side of things. Institutions are inherently exclusionary. You can’t hire all people to participate in an institution; you have to select employees. And there are costs to running an institution. Institutions require frameworks; legal, economic, and physical. Institutions, because they are exclusive by nature, create a professional class. On the upside, institutions get to tell employees how to do their jobs. On the downside, this in turn creates a management problem.

Cooperation: Coordination > Planning

Shirky talks about cooperation as infrastructure. Which results in taking the problem to the people instead of the people to the problem. Instead of hiring everyone, you allow everyone to engage in problem solving.  Bringing the problem to the people is something we’ve seen happen in the Obama administration as evidenced by the use of social media and engagement, and the Open Government Initative. The example Shirky uses is flickr, Yahoo’s photo sharing service, where users can upload and tag files. Instead of planning how many and what type of photos flickr will store, the software allows users to coordinate content using keyword terms, or tags.

He also sites cell phones as an example where coordination has replaced planning. Instead of planning exactly when and where to meet, we now say “call you when I get there.”

80-20 Rule

He also covers what he calls the 80-20 rule and how that rule applies to a variety of circumstances, including social media engagement. He pulls up some charts to show how the bulk of the content is supplied by 20% of the participants. And he argues that institutions lose the random, one-off contributions of the 80% because they manage to the left, where the high-contributors reside. But, someone in that 80%  may throw out one great idea.  How good is that one contribution an institution misses by being exclusive? Could it be the game changing idea? What is the cost of ignoring that contribution? What is the cost of allowing it?

Institutions and Coordination

Shirky talks about the tension of planning versus coordination. Trying to make a 5-year projection of how a wiki will grow, for example, in institutional thinking. We can’t really predict the results of coordination. But we can focus on our ability to form a group and coordinate now with confidence that our ability to coordinate as a group will help us effectively address challenges later.

The Future

Shirky predicts about 50 years of chaos brought on by the communications technology changes we experiencing now, and refers to the 200 years of chaos brought on by printing press technology. Admittedly, no one can predict the future. But he does argue that institutions that hold on to information monopolies and rigid management styles will face the greatest pressure from these new forces.

Social media is a threat to institutional control And most institutions are in some sort of grief stage now when dealing with the pressure of these forces: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, or acceptance. He says most institutions, as of 2005, are in denial. Where at we at at USAID?

@ Work

We, in the government, have a unique opportunity as both an institution and a place of coordination. The social media tools on the intranet are available to employees. I’m optimistic because I believe social media most accurately reflects the unique and vibrant culture of the Agency I work in, which is made-up of specialized experts and informal social networks.

Sure, we will lose some of our institutional imperatives – the ability to tell people what to say, when to say it, and how – by using these tools. But we will gain by sharing our ideas, our thoughts, our contribution to a community of passionate and dedicated professionals, including the next generation of  leaders.

Participate. We’ll face the future together.

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