The democratization of institutions

The other week, I was at a meeting of a century old institution. The incoming President presented the results of a review that he’d been engaged in, that had impacts on the organisational structure, especially that affecting a number of volunteers. The existing structure has been in place for some time, and the people involved have their own interpretations of what its significance is – depending on how they came to be there. Some of these people were elected into position and, regardless of how representative this process of election was, they feel that they are an important part of the governance of the organisation. Others, perhaps more familiar with the organisation’s formal instruments, saw this part of the structure as advisory rather than scrutineering. Given the titles of the groups concerned, a number of the people feel that they are there to help determine strategy and direction. Meanwhile, some of the permanent staff appeared to believe that they were dealing with ongoing focus groups.

After the presentation, while largely in favour of the direction it was taking, I expressed my own surprise that the proposal wasn’t more ‘democratising’. This is a word that is being seen frequently these days, though I suspect in this particular case few people understood what I meant.

Another organisation, of which I’m a Fellow, is grappling with ‘democratisation’ in this context too, though it is considerably further along the path.

For centuries, it has been a place of discussion and debate on matters of social change. However, for some time it had become stale – little debate happened; that which did largely involved the same people; topics recurred and became relatively esoteric and obscure. A little while ago, a new Chief Executive arrived and began a transformation of the organisation. His style doesn’t suit everyone but few could deny that the body is now re-engaged in matters of social change and the quality of the material open to debate has been massively enriched. Of course, a few Fellows are disturbed by the pace of change, and some feel that social change is a left-wing political agenda. However, this new era has seen some substantial ‘wins’ and there are now far more opportunities for those who wish to engage in practical ways to do so. Events have been opened up to anyone; there’s an active social media presence; video and audio recordings of talks are published for all to see on YouTube, and anyone is encouraged to comment on them and debate them in public. There is now an active group of Fellows seeking to increase the level of engagement within the Fellowship itself – sharing views on social topics, exploring internal organisation and priorities, embarking on collaborative projects and so on. One of the most active groups of Fellows is concerned with social entrepreneurship and many give their time freely for the better good – they aren’t just volunteering on Saturday mornings, they are dedicating significant chunks of time (and money) to making change happen.

This activity has yet to reach a ‘tipping point’ but it is clearly gaining ground.

In any organisation, especially membership ones, which both of these are, there will be a small proportion of members who are proactive and a majority who are happy to pay their dues and keep themselves to themselves. In the past the proactivity has tended to be controlled by the organisation channelled in directions aligned with its own purpose.

Times though are changing and this is what ‘democratisation’ is all about.

When the internet first began to gain popular attention, most people saw it as a massive catalogue. Many organisations simply uploaded an electronic copy of their existing literature and there was no dialogue with prospective or present customers.

Around 2004, Web 2.0 began to be spoken of, as an evolution that uses tools on the internet turning it into a platform for information sharing, interoperability, user-centered design, and collaboration. In this way visitors to sites were no longer passive, but could engage in practical ways with the site, its owners and other users. Examples of Web 2.0 include social networking sites, blogs, wikis, video sharing sites, hosted services, web applications, mashups and folksonomies.

One of the subtle leaders of this revolution was Amazon. Launched in 1995, over the next decade they progressively enhanced the ways in which customers could contribute to and effectively steer the organisation. Never before had readers been able to publically comment and critique products so substantially and across such global markets. Someone can order a book today in Australia, read it, review it, and post their opinions about it online within hours. Someone else, interested in the book in England, can read the critique easily within hours.

Another pioneer was Wikipedia. Envisaged by HG Wells in the 1920s, it wasn’t until Web 2.0 that a collaborative project of this scale could be achieved. Four years ago, researchers demonstrated that the accuracy of articles in Wikipedia (contributed freely by volunteers all over the world) was greater than that of the Encyclopedia Britannica – which, I believe, ceased publication last year.

Never before have ordinary members of a community, however loosely that is defined, had such an enormous opportunity to discuss, direct, drive, enhance, promote and, yes, criticise that community openly. This is ‘democratization’.

When the Arab Spring began in December 2010, and again during the riots in Britain in August 2011, governments spoke of the use of the internet as a means of communication – a weapon misused by the miscreants. They were missing the point. The internet had played a far greater role – it had given communities an expectation that they should be able to comment, collaborate and shape their futures. Of course, there have always been mechanisms, whether democracy as George Bush saw it or any other kind of ‘representational’ system, for people to express ideas, even to be invited to participate in their implementation, but the power of the democratization that the Web 2.0 has kindled, engages far more people, tackling far more extensive issues, and is far more constructive.

A simple example of the power of this collaboration can be seen in the development of software – whether it is the millions of free ‘apps’ for Android and iPhone platforms, or the growth of the Libre- and Open Office suites – which are seriously challenging Microsoft Office’s domination of the market – yet they were developed by volunteers largely at their own expense. As a social enabler, look at the way in which Web 2.0 has facilitated the spread of the TED phenomenon – from wacky conferences in ivory colleges to the slums of Delhi.

The extent to which people want to be able to do this obviously varies but it is a phenomenon that at a societal level has gone past its tipping point. Of course, there are institutions that are still struggling to cope with it. It calls for a wholly different way of operating.

Formal structures (legal entitites; articles of association; AGMs and executive teams) DO NOT have to be there for good governance – ask any modern lawyer or accountant and they will talk of transparency instead of formality.

In this democratised world, it is the members of communities that decide in which direction they wish to develop and how much effort should be expended on it. These decisions may never be ratified formally – they may even go off in different directions simultaneously. Their success depends not on a committee deciding what to do, but on the members being prepared to put their effort (almost always unpaid) into something they believe passionately in, or are fascinated by.

Most such communities see those individuals who seek formal titles and individual acclaim as rather sad. They may parody them by giving them silly labels (“Kilted Chieftain” and “Grand Tartan Vizeer” being two that spring to mind) and boycott their efforts to regulate and control.

Let’s imagine a typical scenario and see how the two worlds would tackle the same situation differently…

Suppose that there’s a special role – one of considerable responsibility – that is recognised the world over as important. Let’s call it the “Football Pumper” – the person whose job it is to make sure that every football used in competitive games is properly inflated. Clearly a critical task. Suppose that the demands of the game are shifting and more and more properly qualified “Football Pumpers” are required and that their knowledge and skills are becoming more and more complex.

Now, the traditional ‘undemocratized’, power-based, control-oriented organisation, will have a few people on its core management team who have a strong interest in seeing these changes happen. They will lobby the others on the board for permission to go off and develop a new ‘qualification’. Given it, they will enlist a handful of their friends, cronies, and related sychophants and produce something that suits their needs. They may wrap this in a thin veneer of industry-wide consultation, focus groups, and surveys, but fundamentally there will be little difference between the ideas of the handful that called for change and the finished result. They take it back to the management team who thank them, congratulate them on a job well done, and then invest a never inconsiderable sum in cascading the use of the new qualification among all ‘Football Pumpers’. They may encounter some resistance in parts of the world that felt they should have had more say, but lobbying of international federations is all part of the fun of the sport, after all.

In the democratised world, things happen a little differently. Anders, from Austria, is chatting online with his cyber-pal (they’ve never met), Bruce from Bondi, about the problems he’s been having pumping balls in a local match. They are joined in the chat forum by Cinders from China – a girl football pumper – who has some interesting ideas for better training of pumpers. David from Davos spots the activity on the forum and asks if it is all about training or whether the design of the balls needs to be improved? This sparks a chord with several people and they all ‘like’ the thread. A new participant, Erich from Eritraea enters the debate suggesting that they should engage with the International Federation of Football Pumpers. He is flamed by the others who have noticed that his tweets are all being automatically retweeted by the IFFP – he is obviously an establishment insider. A few days later, Mohammed from Morocco joins in by suggesting that his father (who happens to be a manufacturer of pumps) might be happy to make some prototypes of the new valve. Melinda from Missouri says her mother runs a rubber and leather specialist firm and she’s sure she could convert some old balls to take the new valves – if Mohammed would send them by post. A few weeks pass by, and Melinda with her friend Candy from Canada agree to meet up in New York where they are being taken for a pre-Christmas shopping trip. They go to Central Park, to film the new balls, only to be surprised to discover that a dozen ‘Football pumpers’ have come along too – to see the new phenomenon in action. Among the group is Simon, a statistician from Stanford, who helps the group set up some experiments to demonstrate the enhanced performance of the new balls. Over the afternoon, they discover not only that the balls are superior, but also that some new skills are needed to make them work even better. Victor, a visitor from Vladivostock who happened to hear about the gathering by accident in his hotel room that morning, takes some videos of these new skills – nothing sophisticated just broadcast quality with his flip-cam. Satisfied, the group depart – leaving addresses and the postage for Melinda’s mum to ship samples to all of them. They arrive a few days later and the group seems to have settled into silence. It’s nearly a month later, that Tasha from Turkey, watching a regional match, on Star TV, sees some extraordinary antics on the touchline as a new ball is being pumped and thrown into play. It seems someone is using an unofficial ball! Tasha is a football pumper too, and quickly goes online to the forum to ask if anyone knows what’s going on. Her boyfriend, Yuri, is a journalist from the former Yugoslavia. He sees the potential of a scandal among the football profession and writes a story for the Huffington Post – which goes viral within a few hours. Soon EVERYONE wants the new balls, they want to practice by watching Viktor’s YouTube videos, they take them with them to matches and the players love them, the sponsors like the better play, the referees like their improved visibility, the fans love the excitement they generate. Everyone loves them! Of course, the IFFP are a bit upset. They had hoped to sign an exclusive deal with a ball maker and each get backhander free tickets to the World series. They also have to explain to the breakfast cereal company who were going to sponsor the not inexpensive cascade of their new balls and pumpers’ certification scheme why it isn’t costing anything to persuade people to use them. But that’s life isn’t it!?

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