Web-Enabled Coordination

How can organizations reach beyond their traditional smokestacks and silos? Coordination mechanisms have existed for years, notes Naval Postgraduate School author Nancy Roberts, but they haven’t been used. But the availability of new web-based tools and the pressures from cost cuts, the war on terror, and emergency management may have created a new environment for action.

Nancy Roberts, in a recent article for Public Administration Review, “Beyond Smokestacks and Silos,” explores “open-source, web-enabled coordination in organizations and networks.” She observes that there are different approaches used when the goal is to coordinate action within organizations vs. when the goal is to coordinate across networks.

Coordinating in organizations. She says that coordinating within organizations uses seven categories of mechanisms, including:

  • Face-to-face relations
  • Definition of roles
  • Definitions of structures
  • The technology of work
  • The design of work
  • Shared understanding
  • The use of processes (e.g., planning, controlling, and information management)

Coordination in networks. In contrast, the coordination of networks depends on the levels of the network and the types of the network. Levels of networks include:

  • People networks, based on interpersonal relations (e.g., your Rolodex)
  • Networks of groups
  • Networks within organizations (see above)
  • Networks among units of government (intergovernmental relations)
  • Networks of nations
  • Cross-sectoral networks (government, business, non-profits)

Types of networks include:

  • Issue networks
  • Communication networks
  • Policy networks
  • Implementation networks
  • Political networks
  • Knowledge networks

Across both the organizational and network coordination challenges, she observes “Despite the myriad coordination mechanisms, complaints about the lack of coordination and system coherence continue . . . with all these options, why the continued problems with coordination? . . . our ‘stovepipes’ still rely on vertical flows of information.”

Web-enabled coordination. With the latest wave of new technology (and the impending effects of budget cuts), Roberts concludes: “the next wave of innovation will require a fundamental redesign of how government operates, what it provides, and how it interacts and engages with its citizens.” She sees information technology a “essential to this redesign, ‘especially collaborative technology. . . ‘ “

Her article then uses two case studies to show how these web-based open technologies are being pioneered, first in the Patent and Trademark Office’s use of its pilot “peer-to-patent” review process that engages experts outside the Patent Office to review applications, and the Haitian earthquake disaster response efforts where nonprofits self-organized recovery efforts via the use of crowdsourcing of crisis information on the web.

Based on these pioneering efforts, Roberts cites web guru Tim O’Reilly who sees a future where “government is a convener and an enabler rather than the first mover of civic actions.”

While Roberts cites several pioneering cases of the use of the open web to deliver public services typically seen as in the purview of government, as agency budgets tighten in coming years, this kind of innovation may become more common place. Citizens and non-profits may become the co-producers of government services and, as O’Reilly notes, the role of government may change to one of enabling by providing data, and serving as a trusted convener different stakeholders – a far cry from the traditional smokestacks and silos!

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Daniel Bevarly

John – This is a great post. All public organizations should read Ms. Roberts’ article and conduct an internal audit using the list provided here. Understanding the role networks play in the daily administration of organizations is critical to more efficient operations. Distinguishing networks by their components helps people to realize their complexity, but also how devise targeted strategies to address them.