According to Tom Malone in The Future of Work, there are three basic decision-making structures in society – Independent, Centralized, and Decentralized. From early civilisation we have moved many of our structures from independent to centralized ones. This culminated with the Industrial Age beginning in the 20th century. Independent structures (e.g. small, autonomous companies) have the lowest cost of communications while decentralized structures (e.g. virtual work groups) have the highest cost of communications. Centralized structures are somewhere in between.
Our society is currently dominated by centralized structures in education, health, government and corporations. Our industrialized world needed control systems so we created centralized structure but commmunications were still relatively expensive. Enter the Internet and communication costs start dropping toward zero. Add in the decline of the manufacturing sector and the rise of the creative sector and you can also call this the end of the Industrial Age.
In Small Schools Loosely Joined, I suggested a structure of community-based schools, linked by information technologies to other communities of learners. The basic premise was of local control but global participation, without the layers of the current educational system’s bureaucracy. I took the title from “Small pieces, loosely joined”; Dave Weinberger’s Unified Theory of the Web. As Dave says:
“The Web is a new public space, solving the old contradiction between viewing ourselves as faceless members of a mass and as “face-ful” unique individuals.”
To paraphrase Dave, on the Web we are not Independent (“face-ful” unique individuals) nor Centralized (faceless members of a mass), but rather Decentralized and interconnected citizens. As the Web becomes our main communications environment, so all of our structures will be influenced by this decentralizing effect (as long as the Internet remains neutral, of course). It’s not so much a matter of solving an old contradiction, but rather of transitioning from a society of centralized structures to decentralized ones.
We are seeing experiments in decentralization happening in various sectors of society. Virtual companies with minimal control are on the rise. It’s easy for a team of independents to get together for a specific project and then disperse to create some other group for another project. I am certain that we will see further decentralization experiments in business, education, health and government over the next decade. It’s not that centralized structures are bad; they’re just not necessary any more.
If you are working in one of these centralized structures, consider your time limited. The same if you’re teaching in one. Now is the time to develop models and ways of working in decentralised structures, while you still have a job. Those in the learning professions have the opportunity to be leading the way, because we are in a period of change and many people don’t have the skills to work in a decentralized world. A good place to begin re-learning is with Dan Pink’s A Whole New Mind, that suggests this skill-set for our near future:
- Design or creativity [right brain thinking]
- Communicating stories, not arguments [more right brain thinking]
- Working as part of a “symphony”, instead of a single-minded focus [even more right brain thinking]
- Being empathetic, not just logical [need I say it?]
- Being playful in your work [yup, right brain stuff]
- Creating meaning, not just accumulating knowledge [that would be right brain again]
The first step in all of this is beginning to trust again. Trust was easy in independent structures, like the family, but almost negated completely by copious rules & regulations in centralized structures like multi-national corporations. However, you cannot participate in a decentralized world without trust. Rules and laws can do so much, but a culture of trust is necessary. For example, when I work in a decentralized project team amongst equals (about 75% of my work) we almost never sign a contract, a non-disclosure agreement nor a non-compete agreement. All of the work is done on trust.
I would suggest that the next time we perceive a problem in one of our structures, such as kids at school on those pesky Internets, that we first take a look at how we can foster more trust in all directions.