It’s the Model, Stupid

In recent discussions about building new businesses or community economic development projects I’m beginning to feel that the largest obstacles to effective communication are the outdated models that we use.

Given the dominance of the corporate governance model in business, government and non-profit organisations, it’s no wonder that many of us don’t see any other options.

For instance, last night our local chamber of commerce was briefed on the NB Self-sufficiency Task Force. We heard about the need to create 70,000 jobs and that it’s not a question of big business versus small business, but export versus services. According to the logic, exporting companies bring in wealth while support companies just shift money around inside the province. We need more export companies to be self-sufficient, and we need more large companies to create jobs, and of course we need more people due to our aging demographics (more retired people than younger taxpayers). Framed in this way, it’s hard to argue with this logic.

However, it’s like Marshall McLuhan said, “We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future”. My readings and conversations over the past few years give me cause to question the line of reasoning from the task force and other policy influencers.

For instance, Thomas Homer-Dixon proposes that we build more resilient communities that can take care of themselves when our tightly-coupled global supply chain cracks as the result of some highly probable event such as an oil crisis, an environmental disaster or a pandemic. An export orientation won’t help if global shipping is significantly reduced for six months, but local greenhouses would make us more resilient.

Yochai Benkler shows how the Internet and open source development are enabling the social production of knowledge. According to Nine Shift, creating knowledge is the fastest growing segment of our economy, as manufacturing jobs continue to decrease. Dan Pink sees the rise of a free-agent nation and surmises that creativity is more important for economic success than industrial style productivity. Jon Husband sums up this change, from hierarchy to wirearchy :

Wirearchy – a dynamic flow of power and authority, based on knowledge, trust, credibility and a focus on results, enabled by interconnected people and technology.


The corporation is a model developed for the industrial age, using command and control systems. It enabled the dominance of the salaried employee as the primary means for most people to generate wealth. However, the Industrial Age will be over in North America and Europe by 2020. All data and trends indicate a rapid decrease in the importance of the manufacturing sector, our primary vehicle of economic development for the past century.

At the same time, we are facing complex challenges to our civilization that cannot be addressed by linear or command and control solutions. Unfortunately, our organisations are ill-equipped to deal with these complex issues. Complex environments are unpredictible, whereas our institutions are based on predictibility. Take for instance government budgets, corporate quarterly growth expectations or educational curricula that are slow to change and assume the same standard for everyone.

Basically, we have the wrong models and inadequate tools to even begin to address our most pressing issues. Our problem is that we cannot even talk about our problems. Reframing the conversation may be our biggest challenge for the short term so that we, as a society, can start to think about the long term.

3 Responses to “It’s the Model, Stupid”

  1. Jon Husband

    Spot on, Harold.

    yesterday at lunch two guys who designed and built a hybrid wiki / CMS system (nice one called ThoughtFarmer) asked me “how do you design a network ?”

    I said “You don’t”

    What I suggested happens is that there is a purpose (to address a thorny problem or an issue), and you instantiate a focus on creating positive, effective results (say with a blog or a wiki or some such thing) and then the network begins to fill in … if the issue is clear and attracts peoples’ interest, passion and energy, the necessary and useful information finds the nodes and the network begins to spread and fill in, etc.

    Here’s Dave Snowden on the same issue .. fits nicely IMO with the wirearchy definition …

    “This included thoughts on altruism, and the way that we manage new meetings. Fascinating stuff as well on the way we punish people who do not pull their weight. It occurred to be that the blogosphere is much closer to that tribal, family based form of living in which obligations and transparency are a key part. Maybe that is why it works?

    I think it is also the reason why I am resisting (on another list serve) any attempt to say that a hierarchy is a network. It seems to be that networks evolve, they are emergent, while hierarchies are designed. In effect that are enforced stabilities (and useful as such) whereas networks are fluid. In a hierarchy the entity is the prime unit, the linkages secondary; in a network the linkages are prime, the entities secondary and fluid.

  2. Harold

    During our value networks analysis workshop this week, there were a few things that stuck in my memory. One was that in a network, every node can have an influence on the network, however small it may seem to be. This is different from a hierarchy, where those at the bottom have no influence. Networks have a different power structure from hierarchies.


Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>