bin Laden networks

As I have mentioned before (see here), it is often hard for us to accept the fact that stuff can work without being minutely controlled from above. I don’t know if theistic religions are to blame, but they sure have played part in this game. We want an ant queen controlling the entire colony, because the fact that the ants don’t need a leader is so hard to digest. How could that possibly work?

We want bureaucracies and hierarchies, because the only alternative we can see is uncontrolled chaos. If there isn’t someone to rule, everybody will just go nuts and we will be doomed.

Some of us try to embrace new organizational models; we want them to work so badly that we try so hard to make them work – but somewhere inside us there’s a small part that doesn’t fully believe it to be true: it just can’t work! So the result is a struggle; we don’t let go because we don’t trust the idea that an organization can work without someone calling the shots.

For the last two and a half years I’ve been interested in XP and I’ve been in projects that have tried to adopt XP – some more successful than others – and in hindsight it is easy to see that even those who appreciate XP find it hard to really let go of the notion that there must be a boss. And there can be some very rigid structures in companies that work against the grain of XP in this regard: people are far apart; it is just not meant for them too engage in close communication and teamwork; “this is your domain and this is mine and that’s how things are supposed to be”.

But perhaps times are changing? The book Emergence, by Steven Johnson, very briefly mentioned in its final chapters the idea that social activist groups (such as the anti-globalization activists) function as autonomous units with not a single leader but a single goal. I felt that topic to be very interesting. Then I read about Howard Rheingold’s coming book, Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution (with its accompanying weblog) that was about just this. In addition it mentioned Osama bin Ladens terror networks as an example of this new structure, as well as new distributed, creative communities.

I also found an article by Brian Friel in Government Executive Magazine, titled Hierarchies and Networks, about how the military and rescue organizations has learned, after 9-11, to organize more like bin Laden, with networks of networks rather than hierarchies.

Networks respond faster to change than hierarchies. Every “node” in the network can potentially talk to any other node in the network, based on what’s the most effective at the moment. They are also better at coordinating than hierarchies (which is ironic given the fact that we are inclined to think of networks as chaotic and hierarchies as orderly): the path from top to bottom in a hierarchy is too slow; in a network units talk directly to close units and the information therefore spreads more quickly.

The important thing, however, for a network to function properly is a shared vision, a shared goal. Brian Friel writes:

Because a network is not as formally structured as a hierarchy, it needs a compelling story that explains to its members why the network exists. The members also need doctrine – principles or practices that guide their actions – since all-channel networks [a term coined by John Arquilla and David Ronfelt of the RAND think tank] don’t rely on top-down directives or strict written procedures.

I will probably get back to this later today.

The above was posted to my personal weblog on September 26, 2002. My name is Peter Lindberg and I am a thirtysomething software developer and dad living in Stockholm, Sweden. Here, you’ll find posts in English and Swedish about whatever happens to interest me for the moment.


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