The power of decentralization

Encourage decentralized activities as a way to learn

Christian Buckley

by Christian Buckley on 4/21/2014

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Back in 2001, I joined a venture capital-backed startup to help design and deploy a hosted collaboration platform for high-tech manufacturing companies and their extensive ecosystems of design and distribution partners. Many bleeding-edge ideas were driving the company. But one of the more interesting business-impacting concepts we introduced to our customers was the idea of ad hoc collaboration, rather than the structured, secure, process-centered collaboration they were used to. We were pushing teams used to heavily customized, proprietary, and expensive platforms into teams that were quick, dynamic, and relatively inexpensive (monthly service charge versus transaction-based).

Although it may seem trivial now, the idea of ad hoc collaboration tools was not only against the grain for how our customers worked, but it also broke the model for how their systems captured, tracked, and managed their products. You don't just halt the manufacturing process of a plasma TV, for example, and pull out the design specifications, customize them with the input of internal and external design teams,  and then insert those changed designs back into the system and expect the dozens (or hundreds) of teams and suppliers and vendors and distributors to turn on a dime for those changes -- much less allow those teams to view the effects of those changes in real-time. But that is the kind of visibility we were trying to provide. And we did.

Ad hoc collaboration

In the grand scheme of things, the piece I worked on -- the ad hoc collaboration platform, offered as a hosted and secure service -- was the easiest part of the equation. More difficult were the deep integration into the supply chain, major additions and revisions to the messaging protocols and XML communications standards, and a major shift in management thinking by our customers to allow intellectual property to be managed over the Internet.

That last one remains a major factor is convincing companies to move toward the cloud. But I digress.

The point I want to make in sharing this background is that what makes ad hoc collaboration so powerful is its ties to the organized, the structured: a decentralized approach provides an innovative spark, powering the broader system.

Take a look at the free market system, and how it drives innovation. The boom and bust cycle causes angst, and we are constantly battling to reduce the economic risks associated with the cycle. But it is the source of some of our most vibrant, active periods of innovation. Before any boom, the market feels more settled and controlled. As happened with the Internet boom of the late 1990s, innovation bloomed and many new technology and business ideas entered the scene. Now, many of those ideas were junk, and the inevitable market reset caused a lot of pain to the economy. But look at the tremendous productivity gains and technological advances that were also generated during that time.

Companies (and teams) should encourage decentralized activities as a way to learn. Allow people to find new ways to work and to innovate. With what you are able to learn from these ad hoc activities, you'll be able to improve all systems and platforms, across the board.

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Topic: Business Productivity

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