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The End of the Organization?

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The Journal of Networks and Civil Society

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By Michael C. Gilbert, February 7, 2008

The predominant unit of interest in civil society has been and remains the organization, followed at a distance by the geographic community. Studies present their results in terms of the number of organizations that exhibit some pattern or other. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested both inside and outside of government to gather and present information about organizations. When people think of working in civil society, they think of working for an organization. When they think of contributing, they frame their choices in terms of which organizations they will volunteer for or donate to.

In practical terms, this all makes perfect sense. It is organizations that are required to make reports to government agencies, facilitating both research and aggregation of information. It is organizations that are set up as employers and as tax exempt entities, facilitating jobs and donations.

These formal characteristics are the result of the regulatory environment that sets up civil society organizations as corporations, or in some countries as entities quite similar to corporations. Other consequences follow, in particular governance by a board of directors or trustees and the hierarchical and insular management model that generally accompanies such governance.

Government regulation is only one force shaping organizations and civil society. Organizations are also defined by the patterns of communication required to carry out the work of the people involved. Of course, those patterns are also influenced by regulations, but they have independent dynamics as well. Relationships within organizations, between organizations, with constituents, the media, funders, policy makers, and others all have distinct patterns of communication that shape the structures of organizations and civil society.

Throughout the world, these patterns of communication are changing. Whether because of the plummeting costs of communication in the developed world or the historical leapfrogging of modes of communication in the developing world, more and more people who wish to communicate with each other, are doing so.

Some existing communication patterns, however local or small scale they may be, genuinely reflect people's motivations and are thus scaling up as barriers to communication are lowered. In turn, they are displacing and destabilizing other patterns, particularly the hierarchical and insular ones that characterize the modern organization.

Is this the end of the organization? Probably not by name and certainly not in the broadest sense of the term. But the traditional, tightly controlled, top down, branded organization is finding itself having to adapt and change. The organizations of the future will not look like the organizations of today.

Whether the organization as we know it survives or not, it is by studying the changing patterns of communication that we will discover the new shape of civil society. Our methods of analysis - and possibly our methods of regulation, funding, and participation - will shift from those that reflect managerial thinking to those that reflect ecosystem thinking.

Over the course of the last century, a journal purporting to study this field might have been named The Journal of Organizations and Civil Society. This would have been the wise choice, for it's in studying organizations that we would reveal most of what we would need to know. In these changing times, as organizations die and are reborn in new forms, we need a complement to this area of study. And thus, we just published the inaugural edition of The Journal of Networks and Civil Society.

This transition to a more network centric civil society is happening. It will definitely be the end of some organizations. Will it be the end of the organization as the standard model for civil society work altogether? That may be the wrong question, because many organizations will adapt. But the successful organization will look very different in the coming years. One of the most important questions is this:

How can organizations survive and even thrive in these times?

Research will play a role, but innovation is needed in several areas of practice in order to exploit the value of that research. Here are five important innovations that we need to make this transition successfully: (1) We need ways of making network structures tangible to those who want to support civil society. (2) We need to develop and propagate the language of networks, with adjustments suitable to our many communities of practice. (3) We need models of collaboration and communication that help organizations make the most out of their new permeability. (4) We need financial structures that facilitate network centric funding and (5) legal structures that facilitate network centric employment.

Which of these are you working on?



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