Published here April 2009.


Musings Index

On Institutions, Collaboration and the Internet

The other day, I came across Clay Shirky's talk on Institutions vs. Collaboration.[1] Although three years old, I felt it still had resonance today. In this talk, Clay argues that emerging technologies enabling loose collaboration will change the way our society works. That is, he foresees how closed groups and companies will give way to looser networks where small contributors have big roles and fluid cooperation replaces rigid planning. By extension, of course, this not only could have an impact on how we assemble and manage projects but also, I think, already has. One only has to look at the extensive use of Email, for example, where project management business is conducted without ever meeting face to face.

However, Email, like instant messaging, cell phone voice and text messaging, is mostly one-to-one or at least one-to-a-few. These are now being supplemented by wikis, discussion groups, and blogs, many-to-many collaboration.

I passed this tidbit along to my friend Ed Fern[2] for comment. This elicited the following response.

On 10/3/08, Edward J. Fern wrote:


Dammit. Now you've made me think about lots of my views.

In the last two weeks, two American institutions have more than adequately demonstrated the weakness of the institutional model. Our congress's behavior, with respect to a purported financial crisis, can best be described as a dysfunctional mess. The televised news coverage of this dysfunctional mess has more than adequately illustrated that the principles of journalism have ceased to be any part of those institutions' goals.

In 1990 I began my Pepperdine masters program in which 25 of us spent two years together. We started with a four day retreat in a nice hotel in San Pedro under the guidance of Curtis W. (Duke) Page, a professor of psychology. Duke took great pains to make his point that our education would be a collaborative effort. He instructed us that, if we had an opportunity to help each other and failed to do it, we would be cheating. I fervently wish that every human being had heard his words and believed them.

Not long after I heard Duke's words, I found myself working for a company in which I was expected to write a performance review for each of 37 people during the month of February. I wimped out. Instead, we had a drawing in which each of the 37 drew the names of three fellow employees, wrote a performance review for each of the three, turned them in to a temporary clerk typist. She was responsible for merging the reviews while protecting the identities of the reviewers.

I then carved up the "salary increase" budget based on reviews I had no part in preparing. After I met with each employee, I gave him or her the merged review to read, and then presented them with their share of the increase budget. The work environment changed dramatically because these folks concluded that I was likely to do the same thing the following February. They recognized that they would never know who might write their next review. It meant they had to get along with, and be helpful to, every other employee in the department.

As a result, I lost my power and was forced to resort to influence, participation in group decision-making, and collaboration. Employee turnover disappeared, absenteeism dropped substantially, and productivity improved dramatically. On a few occasions, it took two or three of us to persuade a sick employee to go home and get well.

Near the end of the two years at Pepperdine, our collaboration began to fall apart. We started picking at each other and the change was very disconcerting. We invited Duke to have lunch with us, described to him what was happening, and asked for help. He explained that our collaboration was targeted at achieving an MS degree and that the achievement was now in sight. Our individual needs were now extended beyond graduation day and the collaboration we had established no longer met the new needs.

Duke suggested that our collaboration needed a new goal ... not a new set of goals, but just one. We eventually chose "continuing friendship." Four of the class members have departed this world but I still have Email interaction with the rest on a regular basis. We all celebrated in July when one member received word that he had no sign of recurrence three years after completing his cancer therapy.

So, we learned that collaboration is fragile and that it depends on finding a single shared goal, not on a set of goals. The goal must have sufficient weight to attract and hold collaborators for an extended period.

For example, in November of 2004, Ukraine held an election one Saturday. By Saturday evening, 250,000 people were gathered in the Square of Independence and on Chryschatic to protest the way ballots were being counted. By Sunday night the number had grown to over 800,000. The American press made us aware that Victor Yushchenko was suffering from dioxin poisoning.

One of my Pepperdine classmates had, a few years earlier, suffered industrial dioxin poisoning. She had undertaken a search to find the best treatment available and, when she put it together that I spend a bit of time in Ukraine, she wrote me a description of her search and the identity of a clinic in Dallas, Texas. By means that must remain secret, the Email she wrote was interpreted into Russian and delivered to Mr. Yushchenko. The following day his blood samples were flown to Dallas.

In January of 2005, I applied for yet another 90 day, single entry visa for Ukraine, sending off the application, my passport and a photo, and a hundred dollar check. I was surprised to find the return envelope in my mail only five days later. When I opened it I was more concerned that my check was in the envelope. I opened my passport and discovered that I had a multi-entry visa that expires on 11 April 2011; the same date the passport expires.

Collaboration overcomes institution. The technical foundation for the collaboration revolution is the Internet. We cannot ask what the Internet has changed. We can only search for something, anything, that the Internet has not changed.

Have a great day.


Ed's personal story provides valuable instruction for us all.

1. At Clay Shirky's consulting focuses on the rising usefulness of decentralized technologies such as peer-to-peer, wireless networks, social software and open-source development. New technologies are enabling new kinds of cooperative structures to flourish as a way of getting things done in business, science, the arts and elsewhere, as an alternative to centralized and institutional structures. These he sees as self-limiting. In his writings and speeches he has argued that "a group is its own worst enemy. Shirky is an adjunct professor in New York University's graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program, where he teaches a course named "Social Weather." This theme is expanded upon in Clay Shirky's more recent book Here comes everybody.
2. President of Time-To-Profit, Inc.
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