World Wide Web as Complex Organization

David Wiles, Eaps 760


    In the old days ( mid l980's until early l994) this would be called the "futures" section of a textbook. In a dissertation effort, the following might be in the "implications for future research" part of the last chapter. In either case, it is where the writer leaves the comfort, security and credibility of a carefully developed logic or concrete data base and sails off into the wilds of "blue sky" speculating. The best example in the Shafritz and Hyde text (perhaps the most prophetic excerpt of all) is the Warren Bennis " Organizations of the Future"( pages 284-296). Professor Bennis estimated forward 25 and 50 years from the l967 publication date. Such long term reference is indeed courageous. As l993 would have been his first acid test or due date it is interesting to think of mid l990's in terms of his "guesstimate" description of complex organization: " Adaptive, problem solving temporary systems of diverse specialists linked together by coordinating and task evaluating specialists in an organic flux....As no catchy phrase comes to mind, I call this organic-adaptive structure."(ibid. page 291)

    Blue sky sailing today , even to speculate upon the "shortest term" possible and plausible, takes more gut even with the helpful place holders "envisioning" and "transformational." Part of what you are guessing about is still the truly novel features of our times ( as was the Bennis late l960's) but with the compressed "shock of the ever new" but the accumulation of many diverse threads and strands of development coming "public" all at once. It is the latter compression that brings us to the World Wide Web as an special organizational phenomena and makes even the hint of speculating to the end of this decade a humble experience.

    Maybe the social compression and concentration of technology as innovation will reduce the World Wide Web to a temporal fad, a speck of foam on the actual wave of change. Three or four years from now we may be remembering about it as ancient history; a hoola hoop over popularization ( what's your "CB" handle?) or a blind alley wrong turn (beta instead of vhs) in the main currents of evolution. I do not think so. In retrospect, the World Wide Web may be judged as approximate to the Guttenburg press where one person and "smart machine" could do the work of a whole monastery of monks. I don't think so. The world wide web seems to operate as a dynamic closer to Stephen Gould's "punctuated equilibrium" and those discovering the web organization today are the "lucky mutant" beginnings of something new.

    For many of us that have taught and thought about educational administration and schooling organization a long time it may mean the end of one road and the start of another. In fact, we may become two camps of specialists (pre and post) for I suspect bridging this chasm with the Kuhnian premise of "normal science" internal challenge, discontinuity and incremental move along is a lost dream.

    I want to make the jump to considering World Wide Web as the cornerstone of complex organization discussion and I want students to appreciate the ninety year history of focus upon bureaucratic and conventional corporate complexity as a complementary skin in danger of becoming quaint artifact. But I do not want to end up with Tom Peters talking "wow" organizations or getting embroiled in Herbert Simon type battles as "chunking" with issues of processing "artificial intelligence" information or playing chess going into the nature of cognition itself. A decade ago that travel took me to Thoreau's discussion of a pond described as alabaster sheen and inky deep, estimated in summer and documented in winter. Appreciating the worm in the wood and the deer coming out of the wood seems tame to the mid 1990's challenges. Finally, it seems improper to teach graduate students in educational administration that the role of middle managers is through, as is the idea of capitalism and everything we presently think we know about sociology, economics, political science in the operation of American society.

    Instead, I assume it remains wise to consider that the World Wide Web and iterations of instantaneous linkages with information worldwide will become the core meaning of complex organization. Knowledge workers and smart machines will still remain viable language to talk about authority and manager-worker relationships in school settings. Educational managers will have to spend time thinking about "information systems design," "project management" and listen closely to librarians about the ways they consider "archival management." This may be described by the Warren Bennis title, "organic-adaptive structure."

    But we must appreciate that the "unit of analysis" can change before our eyes. In educational reform we still fight about accountability as a district, building, classroom distinction because we trace resource allocation and role responsibilities that way. The magnet schools "inside" the public school sector still fight the "voucher" or private business schools on the "outside" of the public sector. Charter schools and home-schooling share the present nebulous discussions of "both-and" or "bridging between."

    The use of World Wide Web linkages and personal home pages makes much of the on-going discussion of distinct institutional differences silly. On the happy face side, the possibilities of talking directly to all audiences about elementary-intermediate-commencement levels of learning competency and standards with "benchmarks" or "thresholds" of expected content and performance are pragmatic reality.

    On the sad face side, the issue of accepting information that can lead to changed behavior still rests with ideas of critical inquiry and socialization. We can still shun neighbors and cultivate deafness even as we run headlong into the wall. If I want to believe all of k-12 education is the Titanic with the public to private to personal variations in schools simply different classes of deck chairs, then I will. Those concerned with deliberate discrimination through perpetuating social stratification and "redlining" policies behind the uses of technology should remember the larger right and sentiment to choose to be "out of it."

    Finally, the "unit of analysis" will not hold still in any conventional way that we can study it and feel comfortable. The timeline compresses too quickly and the numbers of new features multiply too fast. We are talking exponential, not geometric development. The first computer was developed a half a century ago. The mysteries of ARPANET and the Macintosh phenomenon are illustrative of the l960's-l980's computer discussions. Then we reach "lift off." Bill Gates was a "nerd, misfit" spun off from the corporate culture of International Business Machine. That was understandable. But Bill Gates, the Microsoft Corporation and Windows 95 developer, discussed in terms of competition with the Netscape group and the World Wide Web revolution, raise the "unit of analysis."

    I suspect many of us would have been more comfortable discussing the evolution of "linking and surfing" as extensions of gopher and text only access to the Internet development instead of "HTML browsing." Sorry Charlie. If we "dissipate and disaggregate" too much there will be a countervailing preoccupation generated trying to recreate the dikes to keep the oceans out. For example, reread Herbert Kaufman's description of the same l960's policy world (Shafritz and Hyde, pages 339-352) In the policy world of ever thickening and ever deepening webbing, the Kaufman type backwash will likely take the form of creating our own internal and secure ("firewalled") web within the larger swirl. In the summer of l996, for example, Microsoft is spending an inordinate amount of attention to this likelihood. Isn't there already a corporation called Intranet specializing in carving out enclaves within the Internet wilderness? A little more complex than Zuboff's "concentric ring" replacing the "pyramid." For educators and citizens thinking school reform initiatives it is still Peter Drucker's counsel," its simple but is isn't easy."

    Readings & Sources

  • Stewart Brand, The Media Lab, (MIT Press, l988);
  • Louis Pondl, et.al., Managing Ambiguity and Change, (Wiley, l988);
  • John Galbraith, Organizing for the Future, (Jossey Bass, l993);
  • Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook (Doubleday, 1994);
  • Nicholas Negroponte, Being Digital (MIT Press, l995);
  • J. Dunlop and R. Kling (ed) Computerization and Controversy (Academic Press, 1991).

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