Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Transformation And Networked Organizations

Today, Alexander the Average posted a blog entry commenting on a CAP report on needed transformations of the intelligence agencies. The main thrust of both the report and Alexander's comments, is the need for more investment in "human capital," something which I have been thinking a lot about over the past year as I look around for the investment in human capital that I expect to be made within progressive politics.

Over the past few days I've been trying to formulate a section of my masters thesis which will talk about the rise of the networked form of organization and what it means for politics. The main theme of the piece will be that while the internet has made communications cheaper, faster, and less centralized, the real power of the internet is in its abilities to bring people together offline- turning individuals into nodes on a broader political network. More broadly speaking, the internet has changed the most fundamental ideas of what mass-media is, especially the ideas of messenger, deliverer and receiver. Whereas older communications campaigns might emphasize the ability to convince a person who views a media message to change their behaviors and/or attitudes, internet enabled communications campaigns should strive for convincing people to convince other people for the campaign. To put it another way- the internet enables groups to "evangelize" for their issues/campaigns, turning individuals into the deliverers of messages.

But, since none of the above paragraph is very clear, let me just post this quote--pulled from Cyberwar is Coming! (PDF), which points to what I'm trying to get at:

The consequences of new technology can be usefully thought of as first-level, or efficiency, effects and second-level, or social system, effects. The history of previous technologies demonstrates that early in the life of a new technology, people are likely to emphasize the efficiency effects and underestimate or overlook potential social system effects. Advances in networking technologies now make it possible to think of people, as well as databases and processors, as resources on a network.

Many organizations today are installing electronic networks for first-level efficiency reasons. Executives now beginning to deploy electronic mail and other network applications can realize efficiency gains such as reduced elapsed time for transactions. If we look beyond efficiency at behavioral and organizational changes, we’ll see where the second-level leverage is likely to be. These technologies can change how people spend their time and what and who they know and care about. The full range of payoffs, and the dilemmas, will come from how the technologies affect how people can think and work together--the second-level effects (Sproull and Kiesler, 1991: 15-16)

Basically, I feel that most organizations are having a hard time grasping this change. I still find it a little hard to swallow that so much of the money spent in the last campaign went towards broadcast communications and not building the network. But I definitely feel the tides turning as more and more organizations come to grips with the human element of networked organization, at least within the political realm. As both Kris and J. (in the comments) point out, the big government bureaucracies seem to be having a lot harder time switching gears, which isn't really that surprising given that these organizations are almost entirely hierarchical and poorly suited for the emerging networked world. It is, however, more than a little disturbing, and extremely dangerous given the network enabled threats that we increasingly face.

One last point: Rumsfeld seems to have made the historical mistake listed above when he decided what "transformation of the military" meant. See- Rummy seemed to think that the efficiency effects would mean that we'd need less "boots on the ground" and more technology. Instead, we can see in Iraq that while we certainly need and benefit from new and improved technology, our real needs are for more nodes in the network, i.e. more people- whether they be intelligence assets, civilian authorities, or soldiers. General Zinni certainly seemed to "get it" when he called for 18x the number of civilian officials working for the CPA and roughly double the number of troops, but Zinni isn't in charge. I wonder if Rummy and co. will "see the light" and push the armed forces to beef up on its human assets (esp. its non-soldier assets). Somehow I doubt it.