Sunday, May 06, 2018

Information overload, sustainability, and the emerging organization

Nafeez Ahmed, an exceptional journalist who writes at the intersection of resources and society, understands the complexity of the ecological predicament we humans face. In a piece he wrote last year, Ahmed asserted that our current arrangements are approaching a convulsive crisis point. One reason for this is as follows:

[T]he system faces a crisis of information overload, and an inability to meaningfully process the information available into actionable knowledge that can advance an adaptive response.

If he's right, is there anything we can do? The short answer is maybe. The great human ecologist William Catton pointed out in his 2009 book Bottleneck that the mass media has become a conduit for propagating bad or at least inconclusive information. In short, the feedback we humans need in order to run our society in a sustainable way is dangerously lacking.

But what if we could reorganize society to better handle the information available and act on that information quickly, decisively and appropriately? Management consultant and author John Hagel may be able to shed some light on this. (Regular readers will recall that I was channeling Hagel in last week's piece.)

Part of the reason we as a society have been having difficulty making sense of the vast amount of information we are getting is that most organizations are not very good at doing this.

Yet, technology now more than ever affords us the opportunity for what Hagel calls scalable collaboration and learning involving very large groups of people. Those companies and organizations that are mastering this opportunity can react with lightning speed and precision—all the while keeping an eye on the moving target that is our rapidly changing world.

Perhaps the most important thing to understand about the emerging organizational form described by Hagel is that the interactions between those collaborating through it are designed not just to share knowledge but to create it. This means ongoing knowledge creation that can only come from the interactions of people sharing bonds of trust, interactions that can and regularly do offer new insight into accomplishing one's business or policy objectives with increasing speed and effectiveness. This gives collaborative organizations a considerable competitive advantage.

The system of collaboration doesn't discover "the answer." Instead, it constantly iterates as interactions among participants continue, revealing new connections, new methods and new trajectories. In Hagel's world there is no such thing as a 5-year plan, only a 20-year vision that must be accomplished in increments of no longer than three to six months. Things are changing too quickly to make solid plans beyond that time frame.

As the old rigid organizational forms die away—the ones that insist on narrow job descriptions, hoarding information, and striving toward efficiency above all other values—the new forms will take their place. It's not the end of the large organization. It's the end of the large organization that cannot adapt quickly through widespread collaboration.

What I'm wondering is whether there is a way to speed this transition so that many more nimble and powerfully capable organizations can be created to focus on the critical environmental and social problems of our age. Hagel promises an extraordinary possibility in his book, The Power of Pull. The subtitle of the book is: "How small moves, smartly made, can set big things in motion."

We have an urgent necessity to do just that on a number of fronts. If the emerging organization built on scalable collaboration and learning can, in fact, set big things in motion with small moves, we may have a genuine chance to address the central issues of our age to a much greater degree. But time is running out, and I am not sure how fast this new organizational form can spread across human society.

Is there a way to do scalable collaboration and learning in order to speed the spread of organizations that do scalable collaboration and learning? Assuming the emerging new organization is everything that Hagel describes it to be, that question seems to summarize the essential organizational task ahead.

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique,, OilVoice, TalkMarkets,, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. He can be contacted at


Unknown said...

A few examples would be nice.

Kurt Cobb said...

Google almost certainly fits the description of the emerging organization. Facebook may, but I don't know enough about how the company works. Actually, I believe much smaller enterprises more readily adopt this structure. I am working with startup organizations that have adopted this structure as a natural consequence of understanding their mission and the new environment they find themselves in. They didn't need to read Hagel's book to start doing it. So, I would look to small organizations for the best examples since the large ones are often public and forced to adopt the old economies of scale structure to satisfy the needs of investors for quarterly results.

Robert Brown said...

If we want to bat around some business models,I would propose examination of some the work being done in Free or Open Source Software (lets call it FOSS). There is considerable variation in how these groups are organized; in the best ones, we have an oligarchy, surrounded by people who make (usually) incremental improvements. The best of them have a good mix of acquired group knowledge and and awareness of how we got here (aka The Conventional Wisdom), and risk-taking, or personal initiative (AKA Innovation). The driving force is merit and a better product, and the thinking tends to be: "Build something well, and good fortune will come." Some of these currently exist as foundations (e.g., Thr Apache Foundation), but these are larger and more formal groups. Perhaps a more appropriate kid of legal entity can be defined a recognized.

One technique for managing and controlling the work of a team tat is gaining popularity these days it called "Agile/Scrum". Workers gather with a project administrator and briefly state what they did since the last meeting, and what they plan to do before the next meeting. This meeting, called a "Stand-up" or a "Scrum" let's everyone know, quickly, what's going on. Cross-talk, or getting into detail, is discouraged at these meetings, follow-up after the meeting is encouraged, and expected. Many kinds of work benefit from this kind of day-to-day communication, and it promotes collaboration between teams, and team members.

Both of these ideas are essentially lightweight, and result in organizations that promote merit and fast response to problems. They are antithetical to traditional top-down, leadership-knows-what's-best ways of conducting whatever needs to be done.

Anonymous said...

"There is certainly some truth to what you are saying. But, please tell me what the substitute for another planet will be."

Beer, bravado, bullshit and the NFL is apparently the "substitute" for everything we don't want to answer or address. Tune in - it's the greatest show on Earth.

For now.