In conversations with people I often find myself tangenting from the topic of security to that of organizational structure.  I am not referring to the hierarchical structure that exists in many businesses, but instead something closer to the chaordic structure that Dee Hock had in mind when he formed VISA.

When I start the conversation about organizational structure, it has to start by tearing down the traditional frameworks and models that exist in peoples’ heads.  Most people think that organization works best in a top-down system where everyone knows their role and responsibility, but as Dee Hock mentioned in an interview, this is not how organisms exist, evolve, and more importantly survive!

Do we really think that maximum output originates from top-down commands vs organic collaboration?  You see, everything is live is about trade-offs and this is one such event.  In a top-down social structure we tend to get very predictable and specific, let limited, results. For many people who like to measure progress this is an easy metric to put in place.  The problem with this structure is the death rate of the organism, something companies call turnover of employees.  The death rate, or turnover, in companies is sometimes higher than it needs to be because people often feel stifled by their inability to affect change within the organization.

Imagine if you needed to issue a command every time you wanted your heart to beat.  Of course, such an organism would not last long less they forget or fall asleep and stop breathing.  Instead, we look to a more organic collaboration that works much like the autonomic nervous system.  With this system, the body has created a framework for the individual components and organs that make up the body to participate in a much greater process.  There is a very small barrier to entry for these organs to participate and each only contributes a small amount but results in the greater gestalt of ones health.

In an organic organizational structure we tend to get more networked and integrated communication and collaboration. The down side of this is that the output of this group is not as easily measured and not nearly as predictable.  The organic structure requires one to stop thinking in terms of processes and start thinking in terms of frameworks.

A process is a documented, repeatable, series of events.  A process is something that can be tasked out and completed in a measured amount of time.  On the other hand, a framework works as an incubation unit for ideas.  It provides the home, resources, and food for ideas to grow and evolve, as well as a space for individuals to collaborate.  A framework has the potential for generating much higher output than any one process, but to achieve this requires a change in the way we foster and grow organizations.  The required change is that companies stop thinking about growing organizational charts and start growing individuals.  The shift implies a movement away from Procrustean box and towards embracing the social collaboration ether around us.

What really is a framework?

A framework is a platform that enables content creation and collaboration.  Wikipedia, YouTube, and CraigsList never made it big because a few people decided to, on their own, write an encyclopedia, create videos, or post adds.  Instead these websites became popular because they created a framework for a Do-It-Yourself culture to create the content for them.

Traditional companies such as GE, Microsoft, and Ford Motor company have a hard time embracing the social collaborative framework because the Procrustean boxes already exist.  The question of who “owns” this new “product” begin to emerge.  Does it belong to research and development, marketing, external communications, or sales?

The answer is that a framework belongs to the company and should be a tool that each of these departments utilizes and leverages to the extent they want.  Unfortunately, many times chaordic collaboration falls into the hands of only one of these groups and we see the marketing department creating a social game to promote the brand while the research and development team struggle to create a new product the company can sell. This is the medical equivalent of the digestive system deciding that it controls the autonomic nervous system and hijacking it for a very narrow purpose.

An effective framework should lower the barrier to entry for people to participate, share, and collaborate on information in projects, while keeping the information organized enough to be useful.  These are busy times and we are busy people who don’t want to spend out free time writing an encyclopedia, but we are willing to contribute and correct entries that are of interest to us.

To really view what chaordic development can do by reducing the barrier to participation and opening up the framework of knowledge development, we have the following statistic:

At a rate of 600 words a minute, twenty-four hours a day, a person could read nearly 27,000,000 words in a month. In the month of July 2006, Wikipedia grew by over 30,000,000 words. Given this, it is unlikely for any single reader to read all of Wikipedia’s new content. Reading the current incarnation at that rate would take over two years, and by the time they were done, so much would have changed with the parts they had already read that they would have to start over.

How this impacts every area of your business

What does this mean for my company?  The net-net is that companies need to stop thinking about creating white-papers, marketing materials, and position statements that result in highly polished cannon fodder that nobody ever reads.  Having glossies/slicks in front of your convention booth is par for the course but an entirely necessary evil.  The absence of them implies you have no information, but never have I heard someone say they do anything but throw this material away.

Even if the white-paper you write is highly polished and read by a few people, how much content can you individually create?  Using the Wikipedia statistic above, imagine if you could write 600 words a minute (an impossible feat as that is 10 words a second) for 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.  Now imagine that those words you are typing never require editing and are well written (another nearly impossible feat.)  Even then you could not create the content, with the expertise and attention to detail that happens in Wikipedia.

Every minute members of YouTube upload over 13 hours of video.  It would take well over 400 years to view every YouTube video clip.  Even if the majority of that content is nothing but mental fodder, those videos that go viral empower the marketing that drives value in the site.  In addition, YouTube has capitalized on the long-tail approach towards market ownership by building a framework that all segments of the video creation spectrum can participate in.

The next time you decide to create a process, ask yourself if a framework would be a better fit.