From institutions to instruments

Photo by  Meriç Dağlı  on  Unsplash

The alternative title is ‘Why the established organisation ideal of old is dead’.

The idea behind the concept of an ‘institution’ is fairly noble. When we think of great institutions, we think of revered bodies. The protocols they establish act as the hallmarks of good practice.

Institutions are stalwarts in the organised world. We’re supposed to depend on them. As repositories of enshrined and encoded quality, they are useful touchstones within the hectic pace and nature of civic and economic life. As corporates, institutions embody quality control. But in the digital economy, do they still serve the same useful function they used to?

Github is a modern day repository. It works very differently to a traditional institution. Github is an example of an organisation dynamically changing and growing on the basis of the content uploaded by its users. The Github community’s ‘commits’ are sorted and filtered on the basis of their actual use in real time. Their value is quantified via the number of forks, likes and watches each one receives. And, unlike traditional institutions as we know them, each piece of code created on Github can be rated on fitness for purpose.

As we shift from the industrialised economy to the networked one, there has been some talk of 21st century institutions riding to the rescue to give guidance and direction in changing times.

But I think institutions are a misnomer in a dynamic digital economy. Recursive intelligence and the pace of technological life today means things have moved on. Perhaps we should think differently about institutions and rescope how we frame their erstwhile value – considering, along the way, the new forms and ways of organising that distributed digital enterprise can enable.

I don’t believe the idea of institutional organisation adequately serves our needs in a dynamic, digitally connected economy, where the greatest currency we have is attention, time is scarce, change is frequent, scale doesn’t matter in the same way it used to and the greatest indicators of value are not stocks and shares but flows of information.

As we reframe what great organisation means in the 21st century, we can look to Github as one example that points the way forward, which is neither managed from above nor set out to be an arbiter of how things should be. Github just ‘is’. Its value is based on the functional value it provides day-to-day as an instrument of code sharing.

And this is the point. Github is not an insitutition as much as an instrument. It’s an example of a ‘conduit organisation’, a distributed platform that connects people around shared values, activities and its functional usefulness is in getting things done. In that sense, it works more as an application than a corporate entity. The focus is put squarely on the task rather than on maintaining any kind of status quo. And that is a fundamental change to apply to the concept of institution.

Almost by definition, institutions cannot be constantly recalibrated. And institutions built for scale aren’t perhaps as agile as they now need to be.

As a term, the word ‘institution’ itself suggests a form of calcification, something potentially arthritic. Now, when we have applications and platforms available on our smartphones for all the personal and collective tasks we do, and with the data we’re capable of gathering from them, it’s becoming apparent that this level of functionality is an important ingredient for the future of work and this challenges whether the idea of institutionalisation is appropriate.

What we are seeing, increasingly, and born out by the data we’re gathering at Visceral Business, is that small, well-networked organisations can be as effective as large scale, national or transnational organisations, if not more so. Start-up culture reflects that. Furthermore, the protocols they can create are user-led, more responsive to meeting the needs of stakeholders.

Is your organisation an app?

If we are reframing our sense of organisational design to make it fit for a digital friction–free economy, it makes sense to think of (and aspire to thinking of) organisations not as institutions, but as instruments.

Behind some of our most fundamental institutions, as an example, the institution of marriage, has been the value in a set of protocols that can be upheld by society; in that particular instance that’s the value of developing stable, paired relationships.

Whether we’re talking about a legal or behavioural institution such as the state of marriage, institutions that govern global processes such as the UN or the International Monetary Fund, or quality control like the CAA, that act as guardians of public service such as the BBC or English Heritage, or are institutions of association such as the Institute of Directors, they have served us well by creating the end results we want in the form of social behaviours, belief systems, ways of working and outcomes.

Getting the end results we want now, as digitally-enabled agents, is more about dynamically connecting with distributed, networked organisations. These networks are instruments in our hands.

It doesn’t serve us to look for some big, noble arbiter of the quality control we see outside ourselves. The digital economy is at its most potent, and arguably it will generate its greatest value, when we use the instrument of organisation as a mechanism for shared progress, and when we think of our organisations as the way we work together on shared tasks.

As with Github, the benefit of reframing what institution is lies in how we can see, in this way, exactly how to measure the value of the instruments we create.

What do you think?