The Decentralization Imperative

The Decentralization Imperative

Loose hierarchies are no longer the exclusive domain of universities, consulting firms and software development groups.

When people see a flock of birds flying in close "V" formation, most assume the bird at the front of the "V" is the leader of the flock.

Not so, says MIT management guru and organizational theorist Thomas Malone. In fact, the biologists who study bird behaviour now believe that all the birds in the flock are simply flying based on the same set of simple rules about where they fly in relation to their neighbours and the air currents they field. It just so happens that from those rules emerges this V-shaped formation. Watch the flock closely and you will see that no one bird stays in front of the "V" for long. The bird in front isn't the leader at all: Its position is a more or less random result of the way the birds fly. Centralized leadership, it ain't.

We see a leader at the front of the "V", theorizes Malone, because of what an MIT colleague Mitchell Resnick calls a "centralized mind-set". In other words, human beings have an inbuilt - even unconscious - tendency to assume that matters - and particularly organizations - must be managed in a centralized way.

"People seem to have strong attachments to centralized ways of thinking: they assume that a pattern can exist only if someone (or something) creates and orchestrates the pattern," Resnick wrote in a 1998 article in Complexity 3. "When we see a flock of birds, they generally assume the bird in front is leading the others - when in fact it is not. And when people design new organizational structures, they tend to impose centralized control even when it is not needed."

Only if we can overcome that rigid mind-set, Malone says, can we open ourselves to the enormous opportunities for rethinking the way organizations work that have been created by the wave of information technology that has surged through the business world in the past decade or so. Advances in IT have generated once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to rethink the way the organization is working, and severely undermined the old mode of centralized authority. The Internet is now so ubiquitous that small, loosely tied groups of "e-lancers" can take on large, hierarchical corporations. The technologies are pretty well there now, Malone says; it is just that the continuing post-dotcom-boom hangover is hampering organizations from realizing their genuine potential.

Malone has drawn on 20 years of groundbreaking research to foreshadow a workplace revolution that is set to dramatically change organizational structures and the roles employees play in them. To succeed, managers must grasp these changes, he says.

Malone, renowned for his forward thinking, is the Patrick J McGovern professor of management at the MIT Sloan School of Management and the founder and director of the MIT Centre for Coordination Science in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In a 1987 article he predicted many of the major e-business developments of the past decade, including electronic buying and selling, e-markets, organizational outsourcing of non-core functions and the use of intelligent agents for commerce.

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