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RETURN ON TECHNOLOGY: How much freedom is enough? Or too much?

June 12, 2006

Jams Surowiecki (en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/The_Wisdom_ of_Crowds) would like you to look deeply into your business soul and choose between chaos and high walls. For that matter, so would I. It's a decision worth thinking about. The right choice could remake your enterprise. The wrong one could, too.

Surowiecki is just one of several thinkers pondering whether organizations do better with top-down plans, processes and hierarchies, or with loose controls and chaotic creativity. His book, "The Wisdom of Crowds," maintains that large organizations that involve everybody in projects can be better at problem-solving and innovation. That implies a flat organization where ideas flow laterally, not just up and down. Academics have been seriously studying group dynamics like this for years, because it appears unfettered, chaotic group action can work better than directed teams.

This isn't just a theoretical consideration. Organizations choose technology to further their goals, and the choice of that technology can lock a company into a state of being for years to come.

Take the company intranet, for example. In many companies, it's controlled like a robotic dog. Everything that goes on it has to be checked and doublechecked, then installed on the site by the chosen custodian. Nothing wrong with that. It's the hierarchical model of high walls at work. Nobody jumps the walls. This technology might include portal software, for example, or a centralized content-management system. All content has to come to the notice of a central command before it's sent out again along radiating lines.

A portal package makes it easy to create this kind of centralized process. Most use some kind of "flow control" that specifies the exact path new content must follow before it's allowed to debut in public: whose desk, whose signature, whose approvals.

Its opposite is the chaotic model, where an "intranet" may actually be a decentralized Wiki (www.wiki.org) or something similar: software anybody can alter. Anyone can add pages, delete pages, change text or graphics. The famous Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.org) is just a massively huge wiki, but it can scale down in the smallest organizations to being just a handful of pages. The very existence of Wikipedia drags the question of hierarchy to the surface. Just about anybody can change a Wikipedia listing, and this has caused both wildfire success and cries of anguish from those who claim they've been reviled or misstated on its pages.

The decision between chaos and high walls has other implications, too, such as encouraging or controlling employee blogs. Many companies are laying down guidelines for employees who want to blog on their own time, if they're talking about their own companies. A chaotic company has no problem with it. A hierarchical company needs policies.

It's basically a decision whether to trust primarily those who are appointed to do certain things, or to trust all the individual employees to figure out what to do on their own. It's democracy at its most nervewracking. Bill Gore, founder of Gore Industries, supposedly never hired anybody for a particular job, assuming that people would always drift into doing what they wanted to do, anyway. He would hire a promising new employee and then shoo them away into the plant to find whatever needed to be done. He didn't even issue titles.

That kind of faith in humanity will have to show up in the technology. Chaotic organizations have little internal security. They allow employees to change their own computers to suit themselves, install Wikis and other collaborative software, provide wireless for easy meetings, allow open-source software, permit easy access from home, and stand ready to absorb mistakes and IT problems that come with letting the reins fall loose.

Your lawyers won't like a chaotic environment. To a lawyer, anything that isn't screwed down tight into its alcove is Armageddon waiting to happen. Lawyers like storing e-mails not so others can look through them for enlightening ideas, but to forestall litigation. The storage and retrieval systems for each will look different and work differently. Philosophy drives purchasing.

The difference between the two models is profound. The chaotic organization is a viscous fluid that takes on any shape it needs. The hierarchical model is machinelike, designed to be a specific shape, and to operate along defined principles. Technology should always be chosen to eliminate barriers, but the barriers for each model are different and can't be interchanged. That's why you have to choose, and keep choosing.



Altom is a senior business consultant for Perficient Consulting. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at timaltom@sbcglobal.net.
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