Monday, December 12, 2011

Collective protests highlight a 21st Century crisis for traditional government

What do the the Arab Spring, Anonymous, the Occupy movement, Iranian election protests, Anti-Putin protests, the #VileKyle push and the #Qantasluxury incident all have in common?

Each of them was a demonstration of collective action by groups of people without a clear hierarchy of leadership against traditional hierarchical organisations.

In each case the traditional organisations threatened found it difficult to respond in an effective and proportionate manner, with responses often slow and creating greater hostility to the organisations involved.

The traditional organisations around today draw from the US railway corporations of the 18th and 19th century, which were some of the first commercial organisations to develop a 'modern' management model involving strict hierarchical structures and the division of resources into specific responsibilities to be managed (siloing if you prefer).

These organisations, which any manager today would clearly recognize, were designed to coordinate the information, resources and effort required to deliver enormous infrastructure projects - continent spanning railway networks.

Given the modes of communication and management available at the time, with most information moving at the speed of a horse and most previous organisations limited in size to a few locations, family-based ties and people who could turn their hands to any of a more limited set of skill, the railway corporations were an innovative and effective tool for delivering the outcomes desired. They coordinated the efforts of tens of thousands of workers, hundreds of experts, and led to some of the first large companies that a modern observer would recognize.

Two hundred years on, most organisations still use very similar methods of organising resources - hierarchical constructs with coordinators at the top, managers in the middle, worker bees at the bottom and an assortment of specialists and experts who slot in their skills as required, with appropriate compensation.

Governments were particularly enthusiastic adopters of hierarchical models due to their massive scale and increasing responsibilities. They rapidly organised their machinery to take advantage of divisions of responsibility and labour.

As more and more non-family organisations began arranging themselves into the hierarchical model, governments and corporations began to discover it was easier and more efficient for them, with their strict structures, to engage similar organisations. Corporations created trade 'treaties' or merged their resources into even larger management constructs, governments created legislation that could more effectively regulate trade through dealing with significant corporations and redeveloped its own internal procurement processes to favour hierarchical suppliers.

These steps, together with the fact that hierarchies were a more efficient organisation model for the time, led to our modern society, where the hierarchical model of resource management is dominant, well-understood and still considered the most efficient and effective way of arranging resources. After all, most other models would no longer suit our state and national legal systems or our international trade relationships and ownership structures.

This approach to hierarchy has become a self-fulfilling and propagating approach. The legal and economic environment of today, or at least up to very recently, put strictures on non-hierarchical organisations, limiting their size and complexity. This, in turn, ensured that the main hierarchies, governments and large companies, could compete and cooperate in a congenial environment.

These hierarchies had clear leadership structures - a President, Prime Minister or General Secretary, a Chief Executive Officer, Managing Director or Chairman - and they interacted with each other through clearly defined 'channels' of communication. Level to level, officer to officer. This made it easy for deals to be made between them. CEOs met Prime Ministers, Presidents met General Secretaries and the minions met their counterparts to do deals all the way down.

However with the rise of the Internet the environment has changed. Suddenly information can be distributed rapidly, frictionlessly and with great accuracy. Organisations can coordinate resources and manpower without enormous corporate hierarchies and infrastructure. Small teams can create global products, overturning the business models of large corporations and entire global industries.

Strict hierarchies are no longer clearly the best form of organizational structure, no longer clearly the most efficient or effective approach to marshaling resources or coordinating human activity.

This is posing an enormous global challenge for what are now traditional organisations. When customers are no longer limited to geographic competitors, when small and nimble organisations can adopt novel non-hierarchical structures to better marshal resources from any timezone, the dinosaurs begin to stumble.

However commercial 'entities' (traditional hierarchical structures) are not the only ones affected. Governments are also under enormous stress, with their strict hierarchies struggling to develop the systems and approaches needed to rapidly, proportionately and effectively engage, service or contend with non-hierarchical groups challenging their policies, structures and legitimacy.

With traditional lobbyists and companies it was easy for governments to engage. There were clear hierarchies for both state and non-state players and effective protocols could be put in place for meetings at level, systems for complaints, reviews and agreements. However when faced with a collective movement, fueled by a common feeling of rage, disempowerment, hope or other emotion and coordinated and concentrated effectively through online tools into outpourings of dissatisfaction, authoritarian, communist and democratic governments alike have failed to effectively engage or respond in a proportionate or effective way.

Whether a mayor seeks to meet the local leader of the Occupy their town movement (or just calls them a leaderless rabble) or a Prime Minister seeks to meet the national leader of their civil uprising (or just calls it an unsupported riot led by drug dealers and foreign terrorists), the pattern is the same.

The hierarchical government fails to effectively engage as they cannot identify a structure they recognize, another hierarchy. They apply tolerance, then security constraint and then force and they then lose or face diminished legitimacy.

In some cases the loss of legitimacy causes their fall and the fall of their government structure. In other cases the organisation continues liming along, but begins to slowly fade, waiting for the next encounter and the next, until it finally fails as a state or manages to adapt itself to cope with the changed conditions.

The question that remains open, in our hierarchy dominated world, is what will this adaptation look like. Governments remain an important tool for coordinating national and international relationships, resources and activities. They reinforce each other, no populated area of the globe can survive in today's hierarchical world with no government, although many different flavours are 'allowed' to exist.

How will government hierarchies adapt to collective activity - cations by leaderless, hierarchy free, adaptive groups with superb intelligence sharing and resource-coordination capabilities? Will they force movements to nominate n'leaders or 'representatives' who speak for their movements and can make binding deals? Or will governments find methods to adapt themselves to engage and, where necessary, fight and win, against 'faceless' foes and frenemies?

The jury is still out on this verdict and the evidence is still being presented. However thus far governments in most parts of the world have failed to develop effective, nonviolent approaches to contend with amorphous, leaderless collective movements.

While the internet exists in its current form, an international system for frictionless information sharing, coordination and amplification, governments will have to continue to work hard to adapt themselves, or change the rules, to contend with continuing leaderless protests and movements.

It will be a fascinating - and bloody - war between traditional hierarchies and amorphous, adaptive 'organisations'. However the policies and approaches used to engage, and the method of resolution of this war, will shape the next stages for human societies for many years to come.

1 comment:

  1. A little jealous that I didn't write this post Craig. EoM.