NGO2.0 -- the end of the organization? (1)

19.03.2008 | Christian Kreutz

Michael Gilbert wrote an article called "The End of the Organization?" in which he wonders how civil society organizations, such as NGOs, can continue working the way they do?

Whether the organization as we know it survives or not, it is by studying the changing patterns of communication that we will discover the new shape of civil society. Our methods of analysis - and possibly our methods of regulation, funding, and participation - will shift from those that reflect managerial thinking to those that reflect ecosystem thinking.

Here are five important innovations that we need to make this transition successfully: (1) We need ways of making network structures tangible to those who want to support civil society. (2) We need to develop and propagate the language of networks, with adjustments suitable to our many communities of practice. (3) We need models of collaboration and communication that help organizations make the most out of their new permeability. (4) We need financial structures that facilitate network centric funding and (5) legal structures that facilitate network centric employment.

This kicked off a debate among these bloggers: Joitske Hulsebosch, Andy Roberts, David Wilcox and Josien Kapma. Their interesting posts discuss whether the statement is valid and emphasize the role that communication plays within it, and to which extend a transformation of civil society and its organizations has already happened.

I think that organizations eventually have to change because of: (a) complexity, which can only be managed in open networks; and (b) pressure from members, stakeholders or competitors, who move on to other organizations, coalitions or simply form there own campaign. But, in my opinion, the organization will change slowly. Still, NGOs have been participating in networks or coalitions for decades although there internal structure has been often preserved conventional. Here lies the dilemma that most organizations are still pretty much self-contained and naturally driven by self-interest for funding, reputation, etc. -- and this is a key obstacle for cooperation. However, civil society was one of the first ones to start working on the potential of the web and in networks if you look at campaigns against the Multilateral Agreement on Investments (MAI) or the Zapatistas in Mexico in the Nineties. A key challenge, for traditional NGOs in the next years, will be to compete with extra organizational activism or open networks for social change.

Allison Fine coined the phrase extra organizational activism in her book “Momentum igniting social change in the Connected Age.” She argues about how we should reconsider cooperation and external communication in an organizational context. I wrote about her book in this blog post: open source approach for organizations. One step in the same direction is The Membership project, where David Wilcox is also part of and which "explores changes that the social web and other factors may bring to groups and organisations ... and to our ideas of belonging in an increasingly networked society."

Replying to Michael Gilbert's five value points, I think they tend to be very formalistic and I can see the web is changing faster and forming more loose networks with their own rules. So the question is whether traditional NGOs can match these loose and open networks with their sometimes quite conventional organization. And I wonder whether it is possible and even conducive to search and create"models of collaboration" or "legal structures" to harness the potential of these new networks.