Web 2.0 and beyond: the Post-bureaucratic age?

One of the repeating features of the commentary on Web 2.0 is that with the new tools for online collaboration many things can now be done without organisations that previously required bureaucracies. We can crowdsource, we can co-design, co-deliver and openly innovate as never before.

The promise if of politics without parties, businesses without corporations and so on. Is this hype or is there substance to the argument?

At the same time, we find domination of particular facets by large organisations, or at least the appearance of scale. Facebook and Google are obvious examples. In the web 2.0 world we are seeing the same "winner takes all" aspect of the ICT industry we have seen over generations of IT; IBM with mainframes, Digital with the minicomputer, Microsoft with the desktop, Oracle with databases and so on.

That new waves of innovation come from new entrants who displace the old guard is not the same as a change in the economic realities of the market place.

My own view is that there are two parts to understanding what the future might look like.

The first is to learn a lesson from history, particularly the industrial revolution. Waves of technology innovation are followed by waves of organisational innovation. The Victorians were stunning social innovators.

Think of the modern university, the joint stock company, friendly societies, Mutuals,  Public libraries, the co-operative movement to name a few. On oddity is that the term  “Virtual University” is actually 19th Century and was applied to the University of London!

In the 20th century, a unique governance model was created with the BBC to scale and democratise access to radio and TV.

During the 1980s there were a number of terms in use around "virtual organisations", "networked enterprises", "inter organisational systems", "borderless companies"  and  "shamrock organisations" that have now morphed into the notion of the extended enterprise.

The second part is to try to dig into why networked IT may be unique.

When you design an organisation for a particular purpose you break it up into a set of tasks and processes that need to be done to accomplish its goals and then glue it back with the coordination functions that keep the integrity of the whole.

Now most technologies either help you with the task or the coordination part, IT does both.

The word processor and before that the typewriter help automate the task of producing letters and reports. The telephone allows a UK subsidiary to coordinate with its US Head Office.

What networked IT does is to change both dimensions. As the raw cost of computing and communications falls you can buy more coordination per buck or pound.

However, this will only deliver savings cost and improvements in quality if translated into less coordination activity.

The recession of the 1980s lost jobs in the unskilled and semi skilled areas. The 80s saw a thinning out of white collar jobs.

So, if the extended enterprise is for real and Web 2.0 can deliver a post bureaucratic world then there are some really interesting challenges ahead.

What advocates of this notion are effectively saying is that you can outsource the coordination functions of management to next generation organisations who can deliver cost savings and scale.

So, if this is true then it means a world with far fewer roles in middle and senior management. If you have less need for management what happens to management consultancies?

There has always been a need for specific support on strategy and other areas of expertise, but what happens to the “body shopping” aspects of the consultancies?

The problem is that to achieve the benefits of the world I’m describing you have to sell in existing organisations to the people who are likely to lose out. Turkeys voting for Christmas anyone?

So, the likely route to this world is that the economics will favour new entrants in all sectors impacted by new technologies at the expense of large players today. Will that really happen in retail, finance, defence, transport, manufacturing, government and so on?

Now think about another management change, LEAN thinking. It’s been around for 20 years or more and builds on 100 years of development of theory and practice. The benefits are really clear. Yet there is still a difference between organisations that “ do lean” and those that  “live lean”. There are more in the former camp I would argue than in the latter. Yet the real benefits come from living in the latter.

So what’s my guess?  Web 2.0 technologies make possible a new wave of organisational innovations. I don’t believe in technological determinism. Whether the potential translates into outcomes in the real world is about changing the management mindset. That’s slower than changes in technology.

So either we see a wave of new organisations across every sector challenging today’s giants in every sector we touch as an industry, or todays big players  will do enough to limit that risk.

In the post credit crunch world, both are possible. It’s going to be interesting to see how this pans out!

May you live in interesting times!

About the author
Chris is a technology and policy futurologist. Chris has been in the IT industry since 1980. His roles have spanned Honeywell, ICL, HP, Microsoft and Capgemini. He is a Fellow of the BCS and a Fellow of the RSA.

See all posts by Chris Yapp
June 2018

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