On not collaborating

Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.

One of my favourite Clay Shirky sayings. As Kevin Kelly remarked a few years ago, we should all be referring to it as the Shirky Principle.

I’d spent decades involved in financial technology, but it was only in early 1997 that I crossed the divide and actually started working for a bank. I was still there a decade later, but that’s another story. That decade at Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein was an incredible learning curve, I was privileged to work with many really talented people, and I’m delighted that so many of them have remained in touch. Wonderful times.

As with any other place I worked at, the first thing I did was to spend time quietly picking up the “carpet tiles” and observing what was happening below the surface. What were the creepy-crawlies that were peculiar to that institution, needing radically different approaches and attitude? I remember picking my jaw gently off the carpet when I was told that until a few weeks earlier, IT costs were allocated on the basis of floor area used. It’s important to do this, to check out the creepy-crawlies, because you then get the chance to figure out some parts of the form and shape of the organisational immune system. Immune to what? Immune to change. Any change.

Sometimes the creepy-crawly is somewhat larger than the metaphorical carpet tile. At least that’s how I felt when I began to understand the size and shape of the teams working on reference data. It just didn’t make sense to me. [My brain was going: let me understand this: low-volatility data, data that does not undergo much change; data that relates to things outside the firm, data that is used by all participants in the market; data that does not have any competitive value except by being timely and accurate and thereby reducing process breaks; and this required veritable armies?].

I’d just about got my head around the veritable army piece when I realised that there were many veritable armies, that every market participant had replicated what I’d just seen. Years later, I could put a label on such things. Shirky Principle.

It made my life a lot easier. When my plane is coming in to land and the pilot says the usual “There’s a lot of congestion around Heathrow so we’ve been asked to hold our pattern for another 20 minutes” I think to myself : air traffic controllers, Shirky Principle, and my head stops hurting.

In fact my head stopped hurting so often that I began to start looking actively for Shirky Principle in action, underneath the carpet tiles.

And after a while I saw a pattern emerge. The naysayers begin by pretending you don’t exist, that the change you are seeking to wreak is a figment of your personal imagination. Once that ploy fails, the enterprise immune system kicks into gear, and reports, presentations, spreadsheets and white papers begin to wend their weary way around the place. Take open source as an example. The immune system response starts with Open source is unAmerican, Steve Ballmer said so. The hidden costs of open source far outweigh the benefits. Open source was the reason Apollo 1 killed the three astronauts. And so on and so forth. Soon it switches to full-frontal attack. The CIO has a big short position on Microsoft. His sister owns the world’s biggest open source company.

I then saw the same process with Skype. It’s a joke. It doesn’t work. It’s a toy. Kill it. Years later, I see that sequence being repeated with discussions about the cloud. Same sequence. Cloud? What cloud? It’s just a marketing buzzword, just hype. Oh yeah, it exists, but all you can do is make illegal downloads, you couldn’t do real work using it. Where’s the performance? It’s insecure, it’s unAmerican, it’s downright communist.

Mobility. Open source. VoIP. Cloud. Same story.

Same beginning. Same ending.

It made me realise something else, something I’ve written about before. That the problem-preserving Shirky-Principle institutions are following a sequence that has been noticed in society many times before, whenever radical change is sought.

First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. Then they fight you.

And then you win.

So (apparently) said Mahatma Gandhi. I never bothered to go to Snopes.com and dig into every line of debate on this. Suffice it to say that there are many reasons to believe he said it. Whoever said it, what really matters is what was said.

Ignore. Ridicule. Fight. Lose. That’s what happens to the institutions that seek to preserve the problems for which they were created.

So it is with collaboration. We’ve heard the word many times. And we’ve seen it paid lip service many times. But so long as it was not centre-stage, the immune system didn’t care.

Now things are changing. Studies are coming out indicating that networked organisations don’t work, that command and control is needed. That open-plan doesn’t work, we need cubicles with high walls. That too much collaboration can cause problems.

All that says to me is that the immune system is switching from ignore and ridicule to fight.

Which means that not collaborating will soon come to an end.




10 thoughts on “On not collaborating”

  1. Back in the time of medieval artisans, we were far more community driven. Collaboration was natural in the village or the hamlet.

    As we moved from artisans to the industrial revolution and the age of consumerism, ‘management’ was born (thanks Ford, Fayol, Taylor, etc) and command and control became prevalent.

    It’s hard to let go of a good thing, isn’t it?

    Reminds me of a book I wrote. ;-)

    Bring on the Shirky Principle!

  2. You may recollect our communications back in days of BT – the “ignore” phase! Then more recently we communicated on your v good “collaboration flows” thinking but despite you showing interest and agreeing to contact you failed to respond – moving from ignoring verging on “ridicule”? This is something I now get as disbelief emerges – or not wanting to know that just maybe 6GL the removal of coders and the commoditisation for Enterprise Software has arrived – the classic innovators dilemma. So no one is immune from being caught up in the “Shirky” syndrome…..?

  3. The same thing is happening in telecoms. The old school protecting its copper phone line assets and trying to ridicule the community or alternative networks. We need fibre. Moral and optic. But we’ll win. Eventually. And we will have a digital britain despite their multimillion pound marketing claiming they are providing ‘fibre broadband’. No it isn’t, its copper broadband if it comes through a phone line. End of. Great post again JP, hope the politicians read it. They are being sold a pushbike and they think they have a jet.

  4. I’ve never been sure about open plan offices. Sometimes bland corridors have rooms with friendly faces behind, while hostile cliques guard their territory amongst vast plains of desks. Sometimes management hides away in an unattainable suite, at other times shares space and first name terms but little else with their underlings. In the open, we are under observation. This applies to online social spaces, too. Does the culture really allow people and ideas to circulate? If not, then who wants to risk being caught in the open? I’m equally suspicious of fancy collaboration spaces as of the argument that it’s about time we returned to our caves. There’s far too much rearranging of the furniture, I suppose because it’s easier to do that than actually think differently. But in an open plan world, you’d hope it would become easier to get up and just walk over.

  5. Great perspective. I advise universities and community colleges on strategic planning and operation improvement initiatives. Disruptive change is abound as the traditional business model is being tested with MOOCs, the notion of flipped classrooms and competency based programs. I think the industry as a whole is somewhere between ridiculing and fighting. Thanks for sharing…ds

  6. The original postmodern institution is AA, which is highly collaborative and held together by common interest and traditions. If it can work for drunks, it can work for anybody. Just sayin…

  7. This article is great. What happens when the Shirky principle is at work on both sides of ideological change? What does your suggestion about collaboration say about the near future in Washington?

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