Networks of Influence: Borderless organizations and Southeast Asian kingdoms

12 Feb

This is what I love about writing in this space!

It allows me to make sense of seemingly unrelated ideas that suddenly burst through, like a magic eye picture. The act of writing helps me form ideas, and the act of sharing helps me find/refer to others that will enhance or redirect those notions. (Sharing publicly is also a lesson in personal bravery for me, telling the world, “This is my idea today, which I concede I may contradict tomorrow.” I like that, too.)

I am finishing up Harold Jarche’s latest book, Finding Perpetual Beta. If you’re interested in organizational growth, knowledge management, technology and change management, I highly recommend that you obtain, read, mark up and share it. One of the ideas that struck me was the importance of exploration at the soft edges of the organization.

In many organizations the outside world is better connected than inside the workplace. This makes it difficult to connect at the boundaries, which is where we have the best opportunities for serendipity and potential innovation.

At the edge of the organization, where there are few rules and everything is a blur… opportunities are found in chaos. In such a changing environment, failure has to be tolerated. Value emerges from forays into the chaos. (pp. 26–7)

This sounded so familiar to me, but it took me a while to place where the same idea applies in a very different context: traditional Southeast Asian kingdoms. Wait, what?!

When I was in graduate school, I studied Southeast Asia and political science. I remember sitting in a class led by the brilliant Al McCoy, as he discussed the structures of authority in traditional kingdoms and sultanates in the islands of what

Borders are hard to draw on waterways. Power was distributed in spheres of influence radiating out from the thrown.

Borders are hard to draw on waterways. Power was distributed in spheres of influence radiating out from the throne.

are now Indonesia, Malaysia, The Philippines, etc. I remember him describing how these were influenced-based networks of rule without formal borders. The king sat on his throne at the divinely placed epicenter of authority, while the edges of his influence—where his network brushed up against others—was where trade, creativity, artistry and knowledge were most active.

As I read Jarche, among others, I see the same things: Organizational walls are becoming porous and unguardable. Hierarchal structures are being transformed into networks and what John Husband has termed wirearchy. I could barely wrap my young mind around the notion of authority without borders and kingdoms without armies to guard them. But great trading post cultures—from Singapore to Samarkand to Timbuktu (to New York?)—grew and their culture thrived precisely because they lay at places where authority dissipated and cultures combined in new ways.

Jarche is quite right to say that there is nothing natural or traditional about hierarchy as an organizing principle. It emerged with modern military and manufacturing. As the social learning age replaces command-and-control, and the notion of the loyal “company man” disappears, organizations and individuals that thrive will develop new ways to find and create value.

As Joi Ito rightly points out, we now inhabit a chaotic, democratic, crowd-sourced world. Finding new ways to develop PKM and ongoing organizational adaptations (“perpetual beta”) are the ways forward.

One Response to “Networks of Influence: Borderless organizations and Southeast Asian kingdoms”

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  1. finding perpetual beta - February 12, 2015

    […] “If you’re interested in organizational growth, knowledge management, technology and change management, I highly recommend that you obtain, read, mark up and share it.” – Ben Carmel […]

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