Social Life of Information continues to fit into the overall approach I’ve been leaning towards of the need for both informal and formal methods.
Yet while it’s clear that self-organization is extraordinarily productive, so too is formal organization. Indeed, the two perform an intricate (and dynamic) balancing act, each compensating for the other’s failings. Self-organization overcomes formal organizing’s rigidity. Formal organization keeps at bay self-organization’s tendency to self-destruct. Markets help society escape the rigidities of planning. PLanning, meanwhile, preserves markets, providing the regulation to maintain competition and prevent monopolies…
The use of deliberate structure to preserve the spontaneity of self-organization may be one of humanity’s most productive assets….
In all such cases, organization has help to foster and focus humanity’s most valuable resource: its infinitely renewable knowledge base. As we have tried to show, organizations play a critical part in the step from invention to innovation, the transformation of ideas into products and processes. Once you have a well-defined product or process, markets take over. But before that, organizations, large and small, play a vital role in organizing knowledge, practice, and practitioners.
[— p. 171-2]
The yin and yang of formal and informal organizational methods is often lost on us. We have a tendency, I have noticed, to push either one or the other. Computer folk tend to espouse anti-organizations, ones based on “flat” principles and self-organizations or emergence. It is interesting that Brown and Duguid come to this conclusion after a lengthy discussion of invention and innovation in Silicon Valley. They focused on the many stories of inventions that went nowhere at their old place of work, Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), home of Ethernet, the GUI, the personal computer and the Desktop metaphor.
(We can argue that Doug Englebart actually developed the first GUI, the oNLine System [NLS]. If you want to see an amazing point of invention that did not make the leap to innovation, take a look at his prescient demonstration of 1968. It has networking, a mouse, and a basic GUI. According to one observer, it was so beyond normal computing at the time that it was greeted “like “a UFO landing on the White House lawn”.)
PARC, it has been noted, fumbled the future: they invented so much that made Xerox no money at all. It was only after Steve Jobs of Apple Computer came over to look at their personal computer work that someone made something of it. He made the Lisa, which bombed, and then the Macintosh, which didn’t. PARC’s inventions were technical but needed social components to go with them. They also needed the formal organization in which they could be launched.
I know that when I started saying that INFOSEC, the small boutique I worked for and still work with, needed some standard processes so we didn’t keep on inventing the wheel on administration, I was greeted with “you process guys are all the same.” Which made no sense to me. They were used to people who wanted standardized processes around the work that they innovated, which I agreed made no sense. They saw formal processes as bad and informal as good. Unfortunately, that made their boss power more insidious since it had to exist only in the shadows.
Informal advocates don’t understand that without formal structure, you will have only chaos. Formal advocates don’t understand that without proper informal abilities and management, you have a heartless company that only drains it’s people. You have to have both and they are complementary. Concentrate on one and not the other leaves you with a mess. You have to do both together, for they work in tandem, partners in creating the world we want to live in.
Julian Fairfield, in Dymock’s if you aren’t in Australia; they seem to have the best shipping rates] says much the same thing. He advocates the formal structural ideas of Jaques’s Requisite Organization but shows how they must be married to informal methods like team building. I’ve always believed that the formal structures gave the informal methods something to hang on. If you want one popular press management book, buy Fairfield’s Levels of Excellence. It joins All Change / The Project Manager’s Secret Handbooks in my all-time top spot.[buy it at
Ronald S. Burt, of the University of Chicago, would probably argue that the formal structure allows you to have “structural holes” in which innovation can take place. When you don’t have a formal structure, the holes are very hard to determine. By having a clear formal structure that matches the underlying reality (extant vs. chart), you give employees the ability to self-organize within the structural holes, creating innovative forms that are outside the boundaries of the organizational structure, strictly speaking, but that continue to serve the organizational goals, generally speaking. The trick is to not look too deeply at what people are doing, letting them have discretion over their own work, responsible for the outcomes and for being within broad policy and work guidelines, rather than being responsible for following specific procedures.
Brown and Duguid discuss that, too, that the best way to grind a company to a halt is to “work to rule”, where all workers follow the rule book strictly. The French do this very well and nothing gets done all day.
Mixing the formal and informal organizational techniques provides us with a tension that we must learn to be comfortable within. The structural techniques are always buliding permanent structures while the informal techniques are always pulling them apart. We build only to tear down. We tear down only to build anew again.
I’m not sure that this is the same as the old battle of Centralization vs. Decentralization but it’s similar.