Re-thinking organisations as networks

Ncs08Covermd-1I originally published this at at Designing for Civil Society. The ideas seem so central to this project I thought worth having on this site for reference.

Michael Gilbert launches the first edition of The Journal of Networks and Civil Society with a suitably provocative article on The End of the Organization?

In this he ponders whether the growth of internet-based communications means our traditional ways of organising for social good will change dramatically.
Michael's argument is that nonprofit organisations are in large part set up to fit in with past and current ways of raising funds, meeting government regulations, employing people, organising volunteers. We then end up with a hierarchical system of trustees and staff. Organisations also reflect past communication needs - but these are changing:

Relationships within organizations, between organizations, with constituents, the media, funders, policy makers, and others all have distinct patterns of communication that shape the structures of organizations and civil society.
Throughout the world, these patterns of communication are changing. Whether because of the plummeting costs of communication in the developed world or the historical leapfrogging of modes of communication in the developing world, more and more people who wish to communicate with each other, are doing so.
Some existing communication patterns, however local or small scale they may be, genuinely reflect people's motivations and are thus scaling up as barriers to communication are lowered. In turn, they are displacing and destabilizing other patterns, particularly the hierarchical and insular ones that characterize the modern organization.
Is this the end of the organization? Probably not by name and certainly not in the broadest sense of the term. But the traditional, tightly controlled, top down, branded organization is finding itself having to adapt and change. The organizations of the future will not look like the organizations of today.

I would encourage you to read the whole article, and indeed subscribe to the Journal. You get a 300-page pdf for $18.95. Michael is mainly US-based, but the journal has a lengthy article by Geoff Mulgan and colleagues at the London-based Young Foundation, on "Social Innovation. What it is, why it matters, and how it can be accelerated". That's worth the price alone. I'm sure the ideas in the article will be further explored at Social Innovation Camp which Paul Miller and friends are running on April 6-8 at the Foundation.
I'm glad to say this is all very useful underpinning for the re-inventing membership project Simon Berry and I are developing with the RSA and NCVO Foresight team. That was inspired in part by an earlier article by Michael called The Permeable Organisation.
We'll shortly have a multi-user blog system up where anyone interested will be able to help us design the project.
I'm also encouraged by the way that blog comments suddenly pop up which serve to confirm a hunch. A year or so back I posted an item quoting an excellent piece by Lloyd Davis on how social media support the informal "shadow" side of organisations.
Now Philip Holden adds a comment:

I commented on Lloyd's blog because there is some well-established sociological theory that illuminates this.
I don't want to write an essay here (though I guess I should one day, at least on my blog...) so suffice to say that social structures (including companies and voluntary organisations) are just that; social structures.
Simply because they appear to be formal or self-evident doesn't give them any special ontological status. More importantly when they go unquestioned or even unnoticed it's a pretty good bet that they do so to someone's benefit.
Further, the power to recognise certain structures and to legitimise them rests with only some people (rich in certain forms of capital).
Dang! It's turning into an essay.
Can I put it simply? Well, the 'shadow' organisation (or society) has always been there (in Bangladesh as well as elsewhere) but only certain people have the authority to call it out of bounds.
Read Bourdieu!!

If we take notice of the informal as well as the formal, it's the blog comments as well as the journal articles that give us clues about what people are thinking and talking about around the globe.
So - which nonprofit organisations do you think will wither, and which will re-invent themselves?


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