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Institutions Versus Collaboration

I watched a great TED talk on youtube by Clay Shirky called “Institutions versus Collaboration.” The link was forwarded to me by Mark Horowitz, who is working to introduce wiki technology at the Millennium Challenge Corporation and wanted to learn about USAID’s experience with Developedia. The Shirky talk is from 2005, but the issues raised are very relevant today, particularly when it comes to using social media at USAID and other institutions.

I’ve summarized the main points for those who don’t have time to watch the video.

Institutions: Cost and Imperatives

First, the institution side of things. Institutions are inherently exclusionary. You can’t hire all people to participate in an institution; you have to select employees. And there are costs to running an institution. Institutions require frameworks; legal, economic, and physical. Institutions, because they are exclusive by nature, create a professional class. On the upside, institutions get to tell employees how to do their jobs. On the downside, this in turn creates a management problem.

Cooperation: Coordination > Planning

Shirky talks about cooperation as infrastructure. Which results in taking the problem to the people instead of the people to the problem. Instead of hiring everyone, you allow everyone to engage in problem solving. Bringing the problem to the people is something we’ve seen happen in the Obama administration as evidenced by the use of social media and engagement, and the Open Government Initative. The example Shirky uses is flickr, Yahoo’s photo sharing service, where users can upload and tag files. Instead of planning how many and what type of photos flickr will store, the software allows users to coordinate content using keyword terms, or tags.

He also sites cell phones as an example where coordination has replaced planning. Instead of planning exactly when and where to meet, we now say “call you when I get there.”

80-20 Rule

He also covers what he calls the 80-20 rule and how that rule applies to a variety of circumstances, including social media engagement. He pulls up some charts to show how the bulk of the content is supplied by 20% of the participants. And he argues that institutions lose the random, one-off contributions of the 80% because they manage to the left, where the high-contributors reside. But, someone in that 80% may throw out one great idea. How good is that one contribution an institution misses by being exclusive? Could it be the game changing idea? What is the cost of ignoring that contribution? What is the cost of allowing it?

Institutions and Coordination

Shirky talks about the tension of planning versus coordination. Trying to make a 5-year projection of how a wiki will grow, for example, in institutional thinking. We can’t really predict the results of coordination. But we can focus on our ability to form a group and coordinate now with confidence that our ability to coordinate as a group will help us effectively address challenges later.

The Future

Shirky predicts about 50 years of chaos brought on by the communications technology changes we experiencing now, and refers to the 200 years of chaos brought on by printing press technology. Admittedly, no one can predict the future. But he does argue that institutions that hold on to information monopolies and rigid management styles will face the greatest pressure from these new forces.

Social media is a threat to institutional control And most institutions are in some sort of grief stage now when dealing with the pressure of these forces: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, or acceptance. He says most institutions, as of 2005, are in denial. Where at we at at USAID?


We have a unique opportunity as both an institution and a place of coordination. The social media tools on the intranet are available to employees. I’m optimistic because I believe social media most accurately reflects the unique and vibrant culture of USAID, which is made-up of specialized experts and informal social networks.

Sure, we will lose some of our institutional imperatives – the ability to tell people what to say, when to say it, and how – by using these tools. But we will gain by sharing our ideas, our thoughts, our contribution to a community of passionate and dedicated professionals, including the next generation of development leaders.

Participate. We’ll face the future together.

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Andrew Krzmarzick

Great post, Sarah – and a hopeful conclusion! Did you post this elsewhere (i.e. an internal USAID blog) and did you get some responses? I’d like to learn more about Developedia and the wiki activities at MCC…first time I’m hearing about both, but sound promising.

Joe Flood

Clay Shirky is brilliant, especially what he’s written about how newspapers must change if they’re to survive. Thanks for posting this. I think you’re write about most major organizations being in denial. They don’t want to accept the fact that conversations about them are taking place, without their knowledge or input. They’ve lost control of the message, which certainly must seem like chaos to them.

Sarah Tricha

@Andrew – I did post this to USAID internal blogs, which we just launched this month. No response to that post yet, but we haven’t really started marketing blogs yet. Working out some kinks. Doing a training on them tomorrow. Developedia, our agency-wide wiki, is about a year old. I don’t think MCC has one yet, but there appears to be some interest on their end.

Suesan Danesh

I really liked your post Sarah, thanks for summarizing the Shirky talk and providing your thoughts. I coordinate a volunteer group of communicators in Gov who are working together to share their thoughts , experience and provide guidance and tools to other Gov communicators and professional on the use of Social Media for external communications (with the public). We do most of our work on a Gov wiki called GCPEDIA so much of what you wrote about applies to us. Given that the member of our group work in institutions and are products of that culture and this working group is purely a collaborative endeavour but one that requires real work and has deliverables. And even though it was not part of the plan, and it really more of a by-product, we do hope to develop a roadmap of this kind of working environment for others.

Sarah Giles

Thanks for sharing this, Sarah. At the non-profit I work for, we’re constantly thinking about, talking about, and testing how we might build collaborative governance systems into public institutions. It’s helpful to think about the tension and institutional reactions that Shirky identifies. We’re currently working on a project funded by the Andrus Family Foundation that utilizes the Bridges Transitions Framework (http://www.affund.org/Applying_A_Transition_Framework.html) and looking at communities and public institutions that are in a state of transition of some kind and taking a really deliberate approach to moving them through that transition. While we’re conducting trainings on collaborative governance and carrying out collaborative projects on the ground in very specific communities (like the SE coalfields region or around aging out of foster care systems), what Shirky’s talking about reminds me more generally of the Framework and its emphasis on the chaos period as often also an incredibly fruitful and creative period for communities. One of the tricks is for the community to recognize that creativity and that period of chaos as a fruitful period and to come out of it with a solution. Acknowledging what’s lost is key in the Framework – which I think you capture here in your post, Sarah.