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Centralized Vs. Decentralized Organizations: The Starfish and The Spider

I just got done reading the book The Stafish and the Spider for one of my grad school classes on technology and knowledge management and a few thoughts came to mind…

I intially really appreicated the vivid examples that the authors discussed in providing context for what a “starfish” vs. a “spider” looks like. For someone that instantly connects to metaphors this books was right up my alley. I was shocked about the organic “community policing” aspect of organizations like Cragslist and Wikipedia, where they rely soley on the populus to manage and regulate these sites. It seems in society that we have this cultural mindset not to trust, or that is what we tell ourselves anyways but in reality we are actually very trusting as people once we find our niche or community. Loyalty to this community seems to overcome any mgmt directives when we give the power to the people. I feel like this is a very political tone here but yet its such a simple one. I really liked how the book pointed out that people are more likely do to things when they don’t have to. Like in Wikipedia, how people aren’t paid to police it and update it but they do it anyways because they really want to. I think we all secretly have a bit of catalyst in us that lights the fire to get things running. We all want to contribute and be heard but I think that really well established decentralized organizations are able to do this in such a way that everyone is heard and a cultural set of norms are underway that keep it flowing.

On a side note too I was very interested in the Burning Man example for a decentralized organization. Knowing little to nothing about this event I found the whole aspect of everything being free there and things being up to barter very creative and just back to basics fun. Its like stripping away allof the material based marketing that is thrown at us on a daily basis–it was far out there but a good example I thought of a starfish–so was the Alcoholics Annoymous group for that matter! I had no idea how annoymous they all were and the background on the organization, it just goes to show you how much an idea can take flight and flourish 🙂

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Thera Hearne

Thank you for your concise and thoughtful feedback on The Starfish and The Spider. I am definitely going to have read this one. My grad program might not include it in my upcoming classes, but it sounds like it is worth looking at.

Melissa Merrell

I also found the Starfish and Spider very thought-provoking. In my professional life, I have more experience with spider type organizations, but intuitively understood the benefits of the starfish approach. Here’s a link to the wiki with more info on the companies and organizations listed, as well as the blog.


I’m interested in hearing other people experiences with bring more starfish-like attributes to government and volunteer organizations.

Allen Sheaprd


Star fish, spider or web or cloud? In M Gladwells book “The tipping point” points out how people and things are classified. Yet the situation is the driving force. We are who we are – except at the office, the house, out at a party, in court, waiting in line for lunch or at church. Then different parts of the personality come out.

Melissa is right about college. Even playing field with alot of trust because we where all in the same boat as students. Information and respect flowed like the air in the building.

I disagree that people do things when they do not have to. Instead they find a cause or vision they want to see grow and add to it.

Wikipedia, Red Cross, fight for freedom or gloabl warming. As Gandhi said “Be the change or thing you whish to see in the world.”

That can help information flow based on the environment – not just the people. Environment is not an excuse but it does set the tone. I hope that sheds some light on Burning Man – even Woodstock or post Katrina days when people where traped at the convention center and did not turn on each other.

I agree its interesting that so many play professionaly on the web. The nighly news makes me think otherwise.

Andre Goodfriend

One of my favorite topics, Leigh-Ann. Rather than spider and starfish, or even centralized and decentralized, I’ve tended to talk about these organizations as hierarchic and collaborative.

The spider represents the hierarchic organization in which the legs are all subordinate to the head. The starfish represents the collaborative organization in which independent entities work together voluntarily to achieve a common goal, but can separate to pursue their own individual goals as well.

Actually the starfish probably does correspond more to a decentralized organization rather than a collaborative one in that it’s not actually made up independent entities working together voluntarily. It is a coordinated network of branch offices to which authority has been delegated. Each branch office, however, can be spun off into an independent entity.

Centralized/decentralized does not quite equate to hierarchic/collaborative in that a decentralized organization is still hierarchic; it’s just that centralized authority has been delegated to the constituent parts. In a collaborative organization, independent entities have come together voluntarily to work together (i.e. collaborate) on something of common interest.

Wikipedia, grass roots coalitions, collegial peer review, modern organized crime (vs the mid-20th century mafia) are all examples of collaboration rather than decentralization. Independent entities are coming together on an ad hoc basis to collaborate on something of common benefit. And that “common benefit” aspect is important. They’re not doing it solely out of the goodness of their heart. People work together because they see a personal benefit to doing so. Contributing to Wikipedia not only provides the prestige of “being seen in print” but one can have that prestige enhanced by peer review, and ultimately one buys into the concept that the more people who provide their expertise to this endeavor, the more likelihood there will be that I will be able to draw on that expertise.

One personal example I have of a contrast between a hierarchic structure and a collaborative one was a few years ago when I was part of a hierarchic inter-agency structure, the role of which was to draw on information from law enforcement in order to make the decisions that our agency was tasked to make. A memorandum of understanding (MOU) was drawn up laying out the role of each participating agency. I and my colleagues were authorized to make requests that would require the other agencies to carry out an investigation and report their findings to us so that we could make a more informed decision. However, we never received any reports. Despite the fact that there was a hierarchic coordinating structure in place that could task the participating agencies, there were no additional resources and no enforcement mechanism, and each participating agency did not see that compliance in the manner defined by the MOU would provide any benefit to their main mission goals. So, the taskings were given low priority and never carried out.

To address this situation, we set the MOU aside and began spurring collaborative interaction. Rather than tasking our colleague agencies, we simply began informing them weekly about the actions we were taking independently in the area of common interest. Essentially, we were informing them that we were doing our part and we were giving them whatever information we had, without making a request that they act on it. We assumed that they would choose to act on the information if they thought it was in their interest to do so. We also recognized that there were some additional authorities and capabilities that we ourselves had that we had been setting aside in the hopes of relying solely on the hierarchical tasking mechanism. Oddly enough, when we began relying on collaboration as colleagues, we began to have a much better interaction with our partners. In many cases we were able to take action on our own and didn’t need their engagement, but in other cases we found that they were determining independently that it was in their interests to take action, and did so, giving us feedback in order to maintain the steady stream of information that we were providing. They also began to provide information to us about related issues because we were seen as a credible colleague rather than as an office that only made demands on their resources.

In another example, I am aware of a database which relied upon data being supplied from the field. Often, however, those required to submit the data neglected to do so. They saw no benefit to providing the data since they were not able to generate reports from the database. Once it became possible, however, to generate reports from the database, not only was data supplied more readily, but there were calls to have the database capture even more data because the new transparency of the data was so valuable.

One thing collaborative systems do require is transparency. Participants benefit from having access to the information that they and others are providing. If a collaborative system suddenly become opaque, it will cease to function. In my examples, if we had stopped providing our weekly status reports, or colleague agencies would stop seeing us as a collaborative partner and would stop sharing their information with us. If those entering data into the system were no longer able to generate reports from it, the quantity and quality of the data they enter would diminish.

I’ll pause here, but there’s always more on this topic to discuss. In a similar vein I asked the question “Are Collaborative Technologies Hierarchical Governmental Structures Paralyzing the Decision Making Process?” because there were studies 20 years ago that indicated that if you introduce modern networked information technology into a hierarchic organization to promote collaboration and efficiency, would could end up diminishing efficiency.

Essentially, unless you’re careful, if you try to turn a spider into a starfish you could kill it — but not all the time.