Featured Guest Speaker
Dee W. Hock,
Founder and CEO Emeritus: VISA
Posted: November 12, 1998
Birth of the Chaordic Century:
Editor's Note: Dee Hock is responsible for the "chaordic" organizational structure of VISA, which propelled it into the largest credit card company in the world. He has since become both a student and mentor of this organizational architecture, and is one of 30 living laureates of the Business Hall of Fame. Part one discussed the nature of the VISA organizational structure and the background behind its creation. Here in Part Two he discusses the implications for the future.
(Part 2 of 2)
Well, enough of the past. What about the future? Clear everything from your mind and think with me for a few moments about a single capacity -- the capacity to receive, utilize, store, transform and transmit information. Not data, but information from Gregory Bateson's perspective that it is "a difference that makes a difference." If it isn't different, or if it doesn't make a difference, it's just noise. Keep in mind another primary characteristic of information. It is essentially unbounded. It cannot be contained.
If one is to examine early forms of single-celled life, it is apparent they receive, utilize, store, transform and transmit information. In fact, that capacity precedes such simple forms, for to do so is the very nature of DNA. It even precedes DNA, for when physicists attempt to measure or examine the smallest known particles, the particles change their behavior, and when they do, the physicists respond in kind. Clearly, they are exchanging information.
In ways we don't begin to understand, information escapes particles, transcends and binds them together into more complex systems. The fascinating thing is that the greater the capacity to receive, utilize, store, transform and transmit information, the more diverse and complex the entities: from neutrino, to nucleus, to atom, to amino acids, to protein, to molecules, cells, organs, organisms -- to bacteria, bees, bats, birds and buffalo, right on through to baseball players.
It didn't stop there. In time, information transcended the boundaries of organisms and led to communication between them. Whether the dance of the bees, the pheromone of ants, the sonic of bats or the language of people, once that capacity evolved there was immediate evolution of complex communities of organisms -- hives, flocks, packs, herds and tribes.
Let's follow that capacity with respect to our species. Painfully, with accelerating speed, we ascended a ladder of diversity and complexity. With language, information escaped the boundaries of a single mind and experience became shared. Immediately, there was a leap in societal diversity and complexity. With written language, came expansion to that which could be manually recorded and transported. With the printing press, expansion to that which could be mechanically processed. With the telegraph, came electronic, alphanumeric capacity; with the telephone, phonic capacity; with television, visual capacity. Leap followed leap, each exponentially greater and more frequent, each immediately followed by an even greater leap in societal diversity and complexity.
One could paraphrase Einstein's famous equation and say that where I is the capacity to receive, utilize, store, transform and transmit information, D is social diversity and C is social complexity, the equation is:
The capacity to receive, store, utilize, transform and transmit information equals social diversity times social complexity squared.
Suddenly, with the revolution in microelectronic technology, within fifteen short years, we have on the order of one thousand times better algorithms, five hundred thousand times more computing power per individual, and five hundred million times more mobility of information. Yet, just around the corner are revolutions of much greater significance. To mention but one, the emergence of nanotechnology. Simply stated, it is the creation of self-replicating assembly devices and computers a tenth the size of a human cell -- so tiny, they can arrange atoms, the basic building blocks of nature, as though they were bricks. The necessary science has already been discovered and molecular biologists have already pioneered their creation by borrowing the structure of cells.
Within three decades, we will be constructing products and services from the atom up and the capacity to receive, utilize, store, transform and transmit information, thousands, perhaps millions of times greater than we now experience will be at the heart of it. The message is simple. Fasten your seat belts, the turbulence has scarcely begun. Unless evolution has radically changed its ways, we face an explosion of social diversity and complexity far beyond anything yet experienced or now imagined.
So where does that leave us? It leaves us locked within our seventeenth-century, separatist, mental concepts of linear, mechanistic, command-and-control institutions within which, in millions of logical, rational, isolated acts, we pour billions of tons of 70,000 man-made toxic substances into the biosphere which it cannot recycle, punch holes in the ozone layer, pile up countless tons of virulent poisons with a half life of twenty-four thousand years, force 85% of the earth's people to exist on 15% of the resources, push two out of six people into abysmal poverty, and commit countless other acts with virtually no understanding that they are atrocities, or how they will combine to affect the planet, our lives and the lives of our grandchildren. As we enjoyed our lunch, in the last hour alone, we destroyed forever 210 species, decimated 6,700 acres of forest, destroyed 3 million tons of topsoil, and starved 1,200 babies to death. Who could have imagined that such an explosion of science, knowledge and separatist, individual rationality could have resulted in collective madness, but so it has. What the emergence of nanotechnology and genetic engineering will do is impossible to determine, but the direction is all too apparent.
Let's complete our tale. Thirteen years ago I left VISA for a life of anonymity, isolation and study in an attempt to assimilate the VISA experience and understand how it might apply to other institutions, the while nursing two hundred acres of ravaged land back to health and beauty. Three years ago that life was shattered when a young man, Joel Getzendanner, then with The Joyce Foundation, became aware of the VISA organization and the concepts on which it was based. Concerned about institutional and biological failure, he intruded into that idyllic existence to throw my own words back in my face. "If anything imaginable was possible," he asked, "if there were no constraints whatever, what would be necessary to catalyze massive change leading to chaordic institutions more compatible with the human spirit and the biosphere?" It was an irresistible question. After much thought and study, I proposed four things, all of which would have to evolve simultaneously and be well under way within five years.
First: At least a half dozen extremely successful, new examples of chaordic organization, similar to VISA, the Internet and the World Weather Watch would have to evolve. They must span such diverse areas as education, government, the environment, social services and commerce in order to demonstrate that the concepts are not unique to any aspect of geography or society, but have universal applicability. Organizations willing to undertake such change must be sought out and methods and resources developed to help them through the process.
Second: Sophisticated, multidimensional, physical models of such structures would have to be created, so that people have something to examine, experiment with, and compare with existing organizations. Multi-dimensionality is essential, for they must contain the ethical and spiritual dimension, something we have lost sight of in our present institutions. In addition, computer models would have to be created collapsing time and graphically demonstrating in minutes how clarity of purpose and principles allow such institutions to self-organize and evolve over decades, and how similarity of such principles would allow them to link in new patterns for constructive twenty-first century societies of infinite diversity and complexity.
Third: The models would have to be supported with an impeccable, intellectual foundation. The economic, scientific, political, historical, technical, social and philosophical rationale for such organizations would have to be documented. At least three-quarters of that foundation already exists, however, it is fragmented and lacks coherence and clarity. Even more important, it lacks the common language and metaphors necessary for massive dissemination and understanding.
Fourth: A global organization would have to emerge whose sole purpose would be the development, dissemination and implementation of these new chaordic concepts of organization, linking in a vast web of shared learning, people and institutions of all persuasions committed to institutional and societal reconception. It must be organized on the principles it espouses and, itself, be one of the successful examples of chaordic organization, enabling people to pursue these concepts in thousands of unique ways, at any scale, at any time, in their own way, for their own reasons.
In my view, none had the slightest chance of realization, let alone all four, and I told The Joyce Foundation as much, thinking that would end the matter, but it didn't. They insisted that the world had shifted in my ten years of isolation; that people had lost faith in existing institutions and were growing desperate for new concepts. They posed another compelling question: If the Joyce Foundation would ignore their command-and-control rule book and make their first grant to an individual to cover expenses, would I contribute my time to investigate as freely and broadly as I liked whether the four objectives were indeed impossible, and if not, what might be required to set them in motion?
Thus, I set out an odyssey more improbable than VISA, and incomparably more important, traveling the world in search of people concerned about institutional failure. It led to hundreds of extraordinary people, inner-city leaders, scientists, corporate CEO's, Native Americans, authors, communications experts, Army generals, environmentalists, politicians, economists, philosophers, and a great many less specialized people of exceptional wisdom.
Their response changed my views about the possibilities. I now believe that with an intensive, three-year, part-time effort by a few hundred deeply committed people and institutions and a few million dollars for research, travel and staff, it is possible all four objectives could be set in motion within three years, capturing the imagination of the world and attracting enough global participation to catalyze the massive institutional change that a livable future demands. A non-profit organization, The Chaordic Alliance has been formed for that purpose, to which the remainder of my days are committed without compensation. In the past year, the outpouring of interest has been extraordinary. While we are well down the road with efforts which show great promise of realizing the first objective, the response has completely overwhelmed present resources, delaying efforts to undertake the last three objectives.
My time is nearly up, but I must return for a moment to the subject of community. The American writer, Norman Cousins, put our dilemma succinctly three decades ago when he wrote,
"A great technological ascent has taken place without any corresponding elevation of ideas. We have raised our station without raising our sights. We roam the heavens with the engines of hell. We have made a geographical entity of our world without a philosophy for ennobling it, a plan for conserving it, or organizations for sustaining it."
In my view, we are at that precise point in time when a four-hundred-year-old age is rattling in its deathbed and another struggling to be born. A shifting of consciousness, culture, society and institutions enormously greater than the world has ever experienced. Ahead, the possibility of liberty, community and ethics such as the world has never known, and a harmony with nature, with one another and with the divine intelligence such as the world has ever dreamed.
Unfortunately, ahead lies equal possibility of increasing institutional failure, enormous human and ecological carnage, and regression to even more mechanistic, tyrannical concepts of control, which, in turn, would have to collapse with even more carnage before chaordic institutions could emerge. It matters not a whit whether such regression and tyranny is in the hands of political, commercial or social institutions, or by what ideology we label them. In the end, it will come to the same.
We do not have an environmental problem. We do not have an education problem. We do not have a health care problem, a welfare problem, a political problem, an economic problem, a peace problem or a population problem. At bottom, we have an institutional problem, and until we deal with it we will struggle in vain with the all the symptoms.
So to the great, unanswered question of the age.
Have we, have we, at long, long last, evolved to the point of sufficient humility, intelligence, spirit and will to discover the concepts and create the conditions by which chaordic institutions can find their way into being? Institutions with capacity for their own continual learning and adaptation, and ability to co-evolve harmoniously with one another, with all people, and with all other living things to the highest potential of each and all?
I simply do not know the answer to that question, but this much I do know. It is far too late and things are far too bad for pessimism. And another thing I know. At such times, it is no failure to fall short of realizing all that we might dream -- the failure is to fall short of dreaming all that we might realize.
And so, to the simple question promised in the beginning, which you alone can answer.
If not such great, new ideas of organization and community, what? If not you, who? If not now, when?
That you shall dream such dreams, and realize them, is my greatest hope and sincerest wish for you all.
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