From Hierarchy to Network
The organization of individuals has greatly changed over time from a hierarchal system to a more flat and network style. One definition, according to Webster, for an organization is “an administrative and functional structure.” Meanwhile, Webster refers to a network in one part of its definition as “an interconnected or interrelated chain, group, or system.” Separating these two definitions is the beginning of defining the former means of communication from the modern. Early organizations represented an organization with a functional structure having a hierarchal set-up to help manage the components. New media takes on a network approach opposing this definition by interconnecting its parts to collaborate together as opposed to working through a chain of command. Networks represent a much more complex system when compared to a hierarchy. From the introduction of organizational charts to the creation of the Internet and social media, our society has adapted to the changing styles of organizing. As the way we communicate changes, our society and means of organization also alters. Clay Shirky’s book titled Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations discusses the origins of organization and the impact of new technologies.
Beginning of Hierarchies: The Railroad
The traditional way of organizing can be greatly attributed to the start of railroads. In the 1800s, railroad companies were dealing with the issue of sharing one single set of tracks for traffic flowing both ways. After a collision that killed two and injured several, it became apparent that a better system of organization was needed. This fostered the organizational chart and the presence of hierarchies seen in organizations to come.
In the basic organizational set up of railroads created to overcome previous issues, the route was divided among regions, which were then divided among even smaller sections, each having a designated overseer to report to. A hierarchy, determining which person reported to who, was developed to ensure the safety and smooth running of the railroad organization. This system accomplished many goals in resolving problems, yet it created one crucial issue: higher costs.
Tradition Organization is Costly
The largest issue with traditional organization is cost. As noted by Shirky, it costs to manage an organization. In this traditional organization, smaller groups may profit over larger groups because the cost of managing the larger system is high enough to drop the profit margin compared to the smaller institutions. In other words, it costs less to manage a smaller group of people and a smaller system. Shirky refers to the “Coasean Ceiling” as the point at which an institution no longer profits because of the cost of managing. For this reason, the book discussed how smaller railroad companies often profited more than the largest institutions.
Formerly: Two Options to Starting An Organization
Cost was one of many constraints, yet a very important issue, that traditionally organized companies face. Until recently, there were two options: (1) Deal with the costs of managing a group and survive, or (2) don’t create the group. Many clusters of individuals wanted to organize but couldn’t because of costs. This explains how many times institutionalization served as a filter for determining which organizations succeeded or which never even saw creation.
A New Means of Congregating
New technology and social media has offered a third dimension to the mix: provide the tool to be used for organizing, but let the users group themselves. New media circumvents the constraints of management and especially costs of doing so that previous organizing suffered from. Shirky’s book did a wonderful job in illustrating how social media steps in to do what former institutions could not.
Example of New Media's Structure: Flickr
Flickr is an online tool for compiling photos by individuals using tags. Shirky’s example using Flickr spoke of a small parade that took place every year. Before the use of Flickr, many photographers, both professional and personal, would come to the parade and take photos. At the time it was too costly for one individual or organization to assemble a way of grouping all of the photos together for others to see. For this reason, many photos taken at this event would go unseen by anyone other than the person taking the photo. Resolving this problem, Flickr came about allowing users ranging from professionals to individuals using phone cameras to post the pictures and link the picture to similar photos with a tag. The tag allows people to search a word bringing about search results with pictures tagged to that word or phrase. Visitors of the parade are now able to organize the photos creating and gaining more views without an institution in place to organize the photos for them. Because of the lack of management needed, the costs were low enough to allow such an organization to exist.
New Means for Global, Open Discussion
Social media has also opened a platform of public discussion and a means to gain support on a global level that didn’t formerly exist. For instance, when a tragic event occurs, social media is a way for individuals across nations to gather for discussion, support, and reflection. Before social media, the news served as the primary source of information, information that often didn’t come as quickly and as abundant as it does now. Think of the power of twitter. Within minutes, a large number of individuals may post news, information, and opinions for others to read regardless of location. The same may apply to blogs. These tools offer a way to stay informed, engage others, and share in open thought and discussion.
We are only beginning to see the power of social media. It grows so rapidly that it is impossible to know where we will stand in years to come. One certain fact is that social media is changing the way we communicate and operate in our current society.
"Organization - Definition and More from the Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary." Dictionary and Thesaurus - Merriam-Webster Online. Web. 21 July 2010. .
Miller, Katherine. Organizational Communication: Approaches and Processes. Boston, MA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2009. Print.
"Network - Definition and More from the Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary." Dictionary and Thesaurus - Merriam-Webster Online. Web. 21 July 2010. .
Shirky, Clay. Here Comes Everybody the Power of Organizing without Organizations. New York: Penguin, 2009. Print.
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