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What will the 21st Century organizations aspire to?

I know that my phone and my credit card are spying on me. I am certain that this is not a good thing, and yet I choose not to think about it as I continue to live my ordinary life, occasionally wondering if we’ll all eventually have to turn to the Amish in the post-apocalypse as the last remaining community of people who actually know how to do anything.

But as businesses and a society, we really do need to examine the contents of our pockets and make some decisions. Our technology, if not our instincts, are enabling us to connect and monitor each other, ourselves and the world around us. Business needs are driving us to seek out new models for growth and efficiency, and our humanity is driving us to find more ways to ensure prosperity for individuals and communities -- it's an awesome thing.

But it's going to be complicated. Perhaps I have read too much sci fi, too much 20th century Orwellian angst-lit. We know the next generation of organization (and society) is going to be super connected. We want this to be so. We want this to democratize and meritocritize, we want to leverage the true capabilities and aspirations of the work force. We want organizations to be more "unified" -- but what kind of "unified" do we want? What will it look like? Is it all rainbows and unicorns? 

Back in 2009 David Armano was trying to express his theory of social business, and among other things he had this notion of “Hive Mind.” It was clear that a) David was onto something -- but even he was not really sure what, b) that he was a brilliant illustrator and c) that “Hive Mind” creeped me out. My imagination drew an ugly Borg-like picture. A totalitarian construct. I’m sure that’s not what David meant. So what do we mean?

If we must now reject the “well-oiled machine” metaphor for business, it would be handy to have something to replace it with. Machines, no matter how well-oiled, are incapable of the agility and complexity business needs to thrive. Further, people are not cogs in machines, and why would we want to be?

So the mechanistic model fails both the business and the humanity test. We are individuals and communities of staggering complexity -- how will we use that to achieve what is currently beyond our grasp or imagination? What is the metaphor of the 21st century, humanistic, connected, buzzing (but not seething) organization?

We will choose -- with intention or without. If we are building a world of possibilities, we want the better ones to prevail. We will have a hand in what dominates, and so we have to recognize and prepare our choices. There will be ambiguity. This article on Disney’s idyllic, planned community -- asks if its “Cool or Creepy?” This will be increasingly difficult to answer in many contexts.

Organizational Design for Century 21 - More than One Metaphor

In the last couple hundred years, business and government have been dominated by hierarchical, command and control structures -- though there have been some other models. Family models, some decentralized models (the "bad guys" have taught us some things about decentralized control) -- but hierarchies are so ingrained in our society as to be barely questioned.

Now we have “Valve” -- a purely self-directed organization (that I still need to understand better). We had the “Occupy” movement and Crisis Commons, Wikipedia, and of course Arab spring -- and perhaps one enduring organizational theme of the future will be purely emergent organizations.

But other than Valve, none of these has an ongoing, durable organization designed to deliver value in a sustained way -- a way that can bring economic prosperity to its members. I do not quite believe yet that the Valve model will dominate, though I hope that model will become better understood and more frequently used. Leadership and vision will play an enduring role, and leadership that can activate the potential of other people will dominate organizations of the next epoch.

In all likelihood, we will have two or three enduring models, ranging from purely emergent to purely directed, that will hopefully bring greater diversity to the types of problems we can solve, and the types of people who can make breakthrough contributions.

As new structures slowly emerge, we need to think about five things. We need to assign societal values to each and ultimately determine whether we are building Big Brother or a chance at universal self-actualization.

1. Free Will

A command and control hierarchy is ultimately about discipline and submission to authority. Free will is intentionally constrained. Do what you are supposed to do, and do it well (or else). The Borg epitomizes this same end, but through a networked and decentralized model rather than a hierarchical one. I’m thinking it's not the direction most of us actually want to enable.

Zen translates to “direct understanding.” People have spent thousands of lifetimes understanding what that means, but at a novice level, it means un-intermediated learning. That there is a direct relationship between all things, and that you do not need the wisdom of others to guide you to see it. There is no official holy book of Zen. But there have always been those farther along the path, and they have often served as guides for others. This may be a new model of leadership. The wise guide still pursuing their path, willing to help others.

The new networked organizational collective, or “Connective,” in its ideal form, will give each person “direct understanding” of the ecosystem. In fact, as we discuss complexity and emergence it may be that “direct understanding” is really what all this design thinking and system thinking is really striving for.

But free will is limited. Often by our understanding of our own culture and paradigms. This recent, brilliant rant by James Altucher is hard to ignore. It describes the illusion of free will created by a society whose patterns leave only an impression of choice.