This article was originally published on August 6th, 2009 at the RockStar Success Library. And decentralized organizations continue to multiply!
The Starfish and the Spider is very obviously a love story. In mapping out how decentralized organizations have evolved, Ori and Rod take great pains to show how the decentralized organization (DO) is nimbler, faster, and more efficient than the lumbering oaf that is the centralized organization. They point out how new technologies (especially in communication) allow the DO to be much more robust and powerful by creating flexibility and adaptability. They submit that decentralized organizations encourage greater participation and creativity from their members, and they seem to imply that they’re the full realization of each constituent individual’s potential.
The challenge with love stories is that they tend to be be great stories, but not very rigorous in their judgment. I think that Ori and Rod uncover an interesting trend, but I’m not jumping on the bandwagon so quickly. It seems that the DO can be a powerful structure is some cases, but that it is not the answer for every situation. I’m not sure if we’re going to see the world become completely decentralized anytime soon.
With the help of new technologies, decentralized organizations are becoming more prevalent and more powerful than centralized organizations because they are more flexible and better at harnessing the efforts of the individual.
Implications, Ideas, and Questions
The idea that
- Major Principles of Decentralization
- When attacked, a decentralized organization tends to become even more open and decentralized.
- It’s easy to mistake a starfish for a spider.
- An open system doesn’t have central intelligence; the intelligence is spread throughout the system
- Open systems can easily mutate.
- The decentralized organization sneaks up on you.
- As industries become decentralized, overall profits decrease.
- Put people into an open system and they’ll automatically want to contribute.
- When attacked, centralized organizations tend to become even more centralized.
- Ori and Rod point out that one of the most effective ways of “attacking” a decentralized organization is to go after its ideology (pg. 144). I think that this is a really important point for those who wish to change DOs, especially because there is such a strong cultural component involved (whether we’re talking about terrorism or Wikipedia). An interesting conclusion for me is that micro-lending banks such as Jamii Bora and Kiva are one of the most powerful vehicles to fight terrorism because in relieving poverty and encouraging small-scale capitalism, it takes away the reasons to join these DOs that promote violence.
- An interesting place to see decentralized organizations at work on a constant basis is in music world – not the recording side that Ori and Rod talk about, but on the band side of things. More specifically, the creation and operation of music bands is very decentralized. Most bands are started by one or maybe two of the members, but in most bands everyone is there of their own volition and volunteers their time and input. This highlights the good and bad side of decentralization, though. It’s easy to create new bands – but most don’t last very long (and the ones that do tend to have a strong centralizing member/manager).
- One challenge in the book is that there is a survivorship bias to the DOs that are studied. Ori and Rod tend to look only at DOs that are successful, and if they are failing, it’s because they aren’t decentralized enough. I think that lends itself to the belief that all DOs work well, when they’re are probably just as prone to fall apart as a centralized one (see the above comment on bands).
- I think that they overstate the individual desire to simply contribute for the sake of contribution. The authors use the example of putting reviews on Amazon.com to demonstrate that members of a community will contribute to the community without receiving something in return. However, many people put reviews on Amazon (including yours truly) as a way to help market and create a personal brand. An examination of DOs still has to take into account self-interest.
- It seems that many of the decentralized organizations work well because they depend on infrastructure that centralized organizations create – for example, Skype needs the physical infrastructure of the internet. Is it possible to start with DOs or do they have to evolve from a centralized beginning? Is it possible for decentralization to take care of all of our needs, i.e., can road construction be decentralized? How would it work?
Should you read this book?
Probably. It’s an interesting take on the subject of organizational dynamics, and the stories are first rate (my favorite is the tale of how the Apaches beat the Spanish). Take the conclusions with a grain of salt, however, and realize that it’s only one side of the story.