Marina Gorbis on organizational change

BB pal Marina Gorbis, executive director of Institute for the Future, wrote a provocative essay for the Capitol Hill magazine Roll Call suggesting how much of today's corporate organizational theory has no future. We've spent a century developing organizational processes that maximize shareholder profits, she writes, but a big change is gonna come. On the horizon are: the emergence of an ecological/epidemiological view of markets and behaviors, a workforce of amplified individuals, and the engagement economy. From Roll Call:
The corporate culture we created spread well beyond the business realm. In his forthcoming book “Life Inc.,” media expert Douglas Rushkoff points out that corporatism has permeated our culture, language, philanthropic organizations, schools and media. It is how we’ve come to think about getting things done. We almost cannot conceive of a world without hierarchical organizational charts, mission statements, bounded departments, and clear sets of corporate rules and incentives.

All of this is about to change. You can think of the next decade as a decade of experimentation with new ways of organizing our society, including our economic and business activities. Beginnings of new organizational shapes already abound – from Wikipedia to volunteers taking over customer-support services for organizations. Turns out that being helpful to others can be its own reward.
"Organizational Change Is Coming Soon"


  1. Isn’t capitalism already a type of evolutionary pressure (causing unfit organizations to fail)? In that sense, yes the economy is ecological. There is definitely a food chain.

    Anyways, what is the point of the theory if the function is always going to be just “whatever works best wins”? How is theory useful then?

  2. Amazingly, if you get 10% growth out of something that stands a good of killing your company a few years down the line, shareholders will find a way to translate that chance into something minimal. Usually anyone who tries to stop it gets fired.

    I call this the “chronic gamblers are stupid” rule.

  3. please god let people be listening… we cannot continue this kind of casino capitalism that is only concerned with this quarter’s profits…

  4. It is unlikely either Marina Gorbis or Douglas Rushkoff (does he really go by Douglas?) are making new points or are even on target for the kinds of organizational change that could/will come. Didn’t the current recession just end an almost 15-year period where “a workforce of amplified individuals” were able to dictate terms to employers? Then came a credit crunch and a series of financial rifts that terrorized those who were at home in their creative enterprises or had been able to devote real money to new partnerships for ecological/epidemiological (can we just say “viral”, like everybody else?) markets and behaviors. It almost seems like Life, Inc., Rushkoff, and Ms. Gorbis have actually missed the boat. The boat sank in October. What we have now is a protracted period that will leave everyone guessing except those who take the initiative to make to with nothing. However, no money and no power rarely form trust in the marketplace. That is what it comes down to: trust, not new organizational platforms.

  5. Isn’t the US government structured similar to a corporate organization? It is called the “Executive” branch, after all. I’d think the Supreme Court would be like the Board of Directors, and the Representatives would be like shareholders. I don’t know much about corporate structure to make solid analogies, but I always saw connections in it like that.

  6. Kurtmac, the branches exist to enforce separation of power (and idea originally proposed by Montesquieu as a method of avoiding problems), so technically the concept of separation of powers was introduced to provide a more ‘fit’ solution of governance. Whether it has worked or not, is another question. In nature, mutations occur without intent. We have a bit more control here.

  7. If the stupidity of the tulip bubble wasn’t enough to convince people, nothing will.

    What’s needed isn’t a reboot of the culture, it’s a way to unplug from the stupidity – a shadow economy that’s not attached to the one inhabited by greedy morons.

  8. kurtmac, a better analogy is that a king used to make the laws, then enact the laws, then separate the lawful from the unlawful.

    The US gov’t splits that task, formerly one man’s burden, into three equal parts, and so long as any two parts agree, you get away with it.

  9. Well, the societal model of preening apes was bound to fail sooner or later.

  10. Organizational change is force-fitting human nature, a hard road. For those who want to grasp its essence, read Maslow for what motivates, skim the conclusion of “The Organization Man” by Whyte for the American point of view, and analyze “The Prince” by Machiavelli and “The Art of War” by Sun-tzu for insight on who gets powerful in a group.

  11. @4 “Didn’t the current recession just end an almost 15-year period where “a workforce of amplified individuals” were able to dictate terms to employers?”

    Yes and no.
    First off, amplified individuals are not the same thing as a coherent collective. While individuals may have been able to negotiate better deals for their individual 401k plans, they were doing it by negotiating with large, centralized bureaucracies.

    A genuinely collaborative community isn’t just a mass of individuals to be crowd-sourced by one company or another.

    And while alternatives to the corporate hierarchy – which certainly has its place for certain industries and operations – may be as old as the Middle Ages or older, this doesn’t negate their power as means of organizing and accomplishing plenty. The fact that they had to be outlawed, that their currency systems and means of exchange had to be forcibly legislated out of existence, the fact that their practitioners spilled blood before giving them up, attests to the possibility that they didn’t simply fade from disuse. They were quite intentionally eliminated because they allowed people to create value for themselves and one another directly.

    And because they did yield a fruit altogether disregarded by standard economics: fun.

  12. @13- The eternal problem is what stops the collaborative community from turning into another reactive heirarchy.
    That doesn’t require malice, just the fact that most people don’t actually want to lead.
    And, of course, if enough people in the group _do_ want to lead, that increases the chance of the group splitting into factions and breaking apart.

    Maintaining a balance where the vast majority of the group doesn’t disagree with the consensus but still takes an active effort seems unlikely for the long run.

  13. Um, “we spent a century developing organizational processes that maximize shareholder profits”? You might as well say that the United States spent 200+ years developing Britney Spears. Yes, that’s where we’re at now, but it was hardly some kind of straight line developmental process.

    The 1920’s, 1930’s, 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s are all decades where organizational culture strayed from maximizing profits (hint: unions, regulation, maximizing *management*’s returns at the expense of shareholders are all themes in those years).

    @2: Yes, if you’re that hard pressed to get 10% growth, you should be willing to kill the company in a few years. The market risk premium is about 6%-8%, and the riskless rate is historically 2%-4%. If you’re saying that companies should play it safe and aim for 7% returns, it doesn’t make any sense. With few exceptions (like utilities), a risk premium of 3% – 5% is way below the market line, and companies in that boat should liquidate, since investors’ capital is better used elsewhere.

    @13: What are you on about? Guilds or something? If you start one now, I promise that you will neither be legislated out of existence *or* murdered. Just poor (but quite possibly having a lot of fun).

    This whole conversation makes me wonder how so many smart people can be under the impression that “the system” has moral implications. Might as well talk about gravity, and how things didn’t used to fall so fast, and how we need new natural laws to keep people from getting hurt falling down the stairs.

    Yes, there are abuses, and at some times (like recently), lots of people have suffered due to corruption, poor national and corporate management, and greed. That’s human nature and the cyclical nature of civilization, not a moral indictment of any particular economic system.

  14. My Big Idea awhile back was to try and use a Digg/Reddit-like voting system to run an organization. The hook of the idea being that votes are weighted by an individual’s investment in the company and that the company is completely transparent to the investors.

    Instead of voting up a news story you would vote up organizational policy changes, or a motion to allocate funds to a new project that you’re promoting, heck even hiring contractors to enact plans that had previously been voted on using the same system. Even things like employee and executive salary could be set this way.

    Enacting a passed proposal would have to be delegated to actual employees of the company, or to outside contractors. The required budget for the proposal would need to be part of the original vote I suppose, or maybe a second vote would be required.

    I could even see an out of work contractor with an idea starting a vote at a company like this. There’s no board to convince, just a critical mass of individual investors. After all, it’s their money.

    Unfortunately, everyone I’ve floated the idea to dismissed it as unworkable. I think people are still hung up on the idea of what a classical business has to look like. Ho hum. Anyone interested?

  15. Okay, never mind. Let’s just leave everything the way it is.

    I keep forgetting we aren’t supposed to intervene.

  16. Oh, I think we are supposed to intervene. But it needs to be slow change from within.

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