Society as a whole, at least in the west, is moving towards a decentralized, networked system rather than centralized. It is notably in our education system, both public and higher, that we are lagging behind.
The internet communications revolution is one of the key pieces behind this. As Jeremy Rifkens notes in The Empathic Civilization, the internet is in and of itself a decentralized system. Rather than being routed through a centralized phone system as with a telephone call, an internet user accesses information from a decentralized database of servers located all over the world. And with previous communications systems, information could only be passed along linearly- in a book, on a floppy disk, or along a telephone line. Whereas information uploaded to the internet can be accessed from anywhere in the world by any number of users. Information uploaded becomes part of a pool of shared value anyone with an internet connection can tap into. This is fundamentally democratizing, allowing unparalleled access to information as well as the chance for everyone to have a voice. We hear talks of the sharing economy as the model for the early 21st century, made possible thanks to the internet. It is a network model of society, where anyone can contribute value in an a-linear way and access the shared pool of value.
The decentralizing effects of the internet can be seen in all facets of modern life, to varying degrees. It is decentralizing the way we learn, collaborate, work, and manage our companies. I've talked sufficiently about the effects of modern technology on learning in other articles, and suffice it to say here that one can learn most anything they want at little to no cost through the internet. Even in cases where expertise, mentorship, or peer-based collaboration is required, the necessary connections can easily be found on the internet.
We've also seen how technology is decentralizing the way people work and companies organize themselves. The growing number of independent, freelance creative professionals is a perfect example of this. Unthinkable decades ago; now designers, creators, and consultants can independently promote and market themselves, and complete their contracts from their laptop and anywhere they have an internet connection.
I've already talked about the example of IBM that Cathy Davidson uses in Now You See It. Faced with becoming irrelevant by fast moving, younger, smaller companies; IBM completely reinvented itself as a decentralized company under a network model. They use technology to manage independent, crossfunctional, interdisciplinary teams whose members are often scattered across all parts of the globe. The members of the team do what they call Endeavor Based Work, where a single crossfunctional team develops a project from start to finish, each member adding value in their unique way but also responsible for the final product. This is in contrast to a centralized organization, where the project, and ownership of it, would be tossed around from department to department like a hot potato: engineering, testing, manufacturing, quality control, marketing, sales, customer service, etc.
It's no coincidence that most software companies, for example, use some form of the Agile. Agile is a decentralized, customer-centric management philosophy that focuses on creating value for customers through rapid prototyping and an empowered team structure. Rather than having a centralized hierarchy where orders are handed down from on high, in Agile, the thought goes that those working directly on a project with customers are the ones who have the most accurate, up-to-date information that affects the direction of a project. Hence the power being decentralized into the hands of the individual teams and its members. Managers and team leaders don't manage or lead in a traditional sense, but are there to facilitate the work of the team members as much as possible by removing obstacles and connecting the team to resources. It's no coincidence that an Agile team leader sounds a lot like the idea of a teacher-as-learning-facilitator I've discussed previously. The inversion of authority functions into facilitation functions is a key aspect of any decentralizing system.
Agile arose in the 90's as a way to solve the problems software companies of the day were having, namely, that they would often spend months or years developing a piece of software that didn't actually fit customer's needs and hence went unused, that the software they built was too interdependent and could not easily be updated, and that they spent an inordinate amount of time at the end debugging the code. As I write this, I can even see the parallels between this and the problems with our education institutions I've previously discussed, that our schools and universities are not customer-centric, deliver learning "products" that their customers don't want, have parts that are too interdependent and as a result prevent them from adapting and trying new things and experimenting.
Eventually, the pioneers of Agile created the following manifesto of 12 principles to describe their work and management philosophy:
Rather than developing a product for a year in an isolated silo, hoping it is what the customers need, then kicking it down the line to the sales and marketing department, Agile teams invert the approach. The team works hand in hand with the customer, who often forms a member of the team. At the very least, the teams typically include a "customer advocate" position whose job is to ask, "is this really what the customer wants? Will the customer actually use this?" They build a rough, dirty prototype to begin with that may look nothing like the final product but that can be shown to the customer in a week or two weeks rather than two years. This is key because it means crucial feedback can be collected than can influence the next prototype, which is slightly better than the previous one. Over the course of dozens of iterations and evolving prototypes, the constant customer feedback ensures that the product, slowly but surely, moves towards completion, often much more rapidly than a traditionally-managed project. And resources are saved because by the time the product is finished, no extra testing is needed. The customer testing was built into the development and the developers, as a result, know that the product delights its customers.
That is obviously best case circumstances, as it is hard for many companies to successfully implement agile, especially larger ones with more established corporate cultures. But the data support the idea of Agile and its efficacy: Agile-managed projects are successful 50% of the time, to within 50% of the original timeframe of the project planners. By comparison, traditionally (centrally) managed projects are successful just 14% of the time and are accurate to with 350% of the original timeframe alloted (source).
The teams are purposefully kept small to facilitate communication and collaboration, usually no larger than 5-6 people. Teams larger than that have been shown to actually output less on average than smaller teams, due to the complexity inherent in having more people who need to be constantly communicating, collaborating, and developing and maintaining a consensus and direction. It's much more effective to split larger teams up into smaller teams whose leader-facilitators then coordinate the combined actions of the two mini-teams. These teams typically set their own goals and tasks to achieve those goals then hold each other accountable in the execution. The team members, as with the IBM example, are often comprised of a spectrum of disciplines required to complete the project.
This form of customer-centric, decentralized management is not unique to software, however, but has cropped up and is cropping up in a variety of disparate fields. Toyota, for example, pioneered Lean Manufacturing. Later, the concepts of Lean were applied to managing new startups and the Lean Startup movement arose. Software Agile is slowly giving birth to a new movement of modular, rapid, decentralized manufacturing called Extreme Manufacturing (after Extreme Programming in software). There are the fields of design thinking and human-centered design which have emerged in recent years, as well. And ironically enough, much of the inspiration for Agile came from the pioneering work of the architect Christopher Alexander whose seminal works A Timeless Way of Building and A Pattern Language described architectural pattern languages as a tool for democratizing the development of livable homes, offices, and towns. Inspired by Alexander, early Agile practitioners began developing their own library of software patterns to accelerate their work and increase their ability to collaborate across teams. Even the military began experimenting with decentralized management as early as the late 70's and 80', and the post-9/11 fight against terrorism and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan seem to have renewed the US military's commitment to decentralization.
The question is not if, but when decentralization will begin cropping up in new fields of human endeavors, and those who are capable of facilitating the transition to decentralized systems will almost certainly be heralded as pioneers as we become accustomed to living in a networked society.
...sees much and knows much