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The new book The Starfish and the Spider argues that decentralized organizations can overtake centralized behemoths
by Keith McFarland
In the early months of the war in Iraq, the U.S. military was overwhelmed by the need to get knowledge into the hands of the troops on the ground. Army lieutenants and captains were dropped into hostile territory for close-quarters combat and had to quickly master everything from a new language to understanding the web of warring clans to coping with lethal improvised explosive devices. So the first generation of platoon leaders to assume command in a full-scale war since the dawn of the Internet age created their own online community and started helping each other...
© 2000-2006 by The McGraw-Hill Companies Inc.
In the open-source revolution, everyone is a contributor.
It sounds like the opening line to a bad joke: What do the Apache Indians, Craigslist, Skype, and Al Qaeda have in common? The answer goes to the heart of a rewardingly simple new book: They're all decentralized organizations that have bedeviled the established hierarchy hell-bent on crushing them.
The Starfish and the Spider is about the open-source revolution, a trend that authors Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom demonstrate is simultaneously dismantling many established industries while harnessing the creativity of the masses to generate new ones. (The title refers to the authors' metaphor that a starfish and a spider appear to be structured similarly, but if you crush a spider's head, it dies. Cut a starfish in half, and you'll end up with two.) Open source has spread far beyond its recent successes with file sharing and software. You can now find cooperatively developed art, literature, even religion.
What Brafman and Beckstrom attempt to add to the discussion is a sense of how you can harness the power of leaderless, decentralized movements. Their effort has mixed results. The authors do an excellent job of illustrating how cooperative networks--such as the Apaches prior to the early 1900s, or Al Qaeda today--benefit from operating without a central hierarchy. But they can't exactly explain how you can do it. Ironically, the best they can do is explain how to interrupt or redirect a starfish network when it's chewing away at profits. The U.S. government finally bested the Apaches, for instance, when it provided its leaders with cattle, a form of wealth that reshaped the amorphous, nomadic tribes into easily manageable hierarchies.
Wealth, it turns out, is the elephant in the room. As the authors put it, "The moment you introduce property rights into the equation [be they intellectual, physical, or otherwise], everything changes: The starfish organization turns into a spider." As a consolation, they make a case for the viability of hybrid entities. Think eBay or Intuit --firms that channel customers' and employees' bottom-up efforts into hierarchical businesses. They may be the best one can hope for. Brafman and Beckstrom make this much clear: If you're the head of a spider, look out for the starfish.
Combine Cluetrain's storming-the-gates passion with… examples like Linus Torvalds's Linux and its place in the open-source revolution to get… Starfish, which needed more Linuxes but whose underlying ideas ring true.
© 2006 FastCompany, Inc.
U.S. News and World Report The Coming Labor Glut- Six Reasons Jobs Will Get More Scarce, Not More Plentiful]
A welter of recent books is predicting a U.S. labor shortage, implying that it will be a hot job market for the foreseeable future. A few examples: Get 'em While They're Hot: How to Attract, Develop, and Retain Peak Performers in the Coming Labor Shortage; Lost Knowledge: Confronting the Threat of an Aging Workforce; Workforce Wakeup Call; and Ken Dychtwald's Workforce Crisis: How to Beat the Coming Shortage of Skills and Talent.
Don't be so sure. Here are six reasons to expect a U.S. labor glut, which would make it harder to find good jobs:
— Corporate downsizing has only just begun. Corporations are realizing that elaborate infrastructure–big central and regional offices, staffed with legions of managers–is unnecessary. Big companies are seeing nimble new organizations compete effectively with the big guys. For example, the new book The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leadership Organizations points out how infrastructure-light companies like Skype, Wikipedia, and Craigslist are beating megacorporations because of their small staffs. For example, Craigslist has significantly cut into the classified ad revenue for newspapers. Many experts predict that corporations have gotten as lean as they can be. I don't agree: I believe the downsizing has only just begun...
Copyright © 2006 U.S.News & World Report, L.P
Veteran entrepreneurs and Stanford M.B.A.s Brafman and Beckstrom spent a half decade studying everything from Cortés's siege of Tenochtitlán to the sociology of alcohol rehab and learned that groups, regardless of their stated purpose, fall into one of two camps: old-school hierarchies vulnerable to the loss of their all-powerful leaders (spiders) or decentralized organizations that can grow and thrive despite even the most drastic personnel shifts (starfish). While the breadth of examples they weave together may provoke an occasional rolling of the eyes, they do make a credible case for how even gigantic spiders like IBM and the U.S. government can get in touch with their inner starfish.
© 2006 Newsweek, Inc.
Brafman and Beckstrom, a pair of Stanford M.B.A.s who have applied their business know-how to promoting peace and economic development through decentralized networking, offer a breezy and entertaining look at how decentralization is changing many organizations. The title metaphor conveys the core concept: though a starfish and a spider have similar shapes, their internal structure is dramatically different-a decapitated spider inevitably dies, while a starfish can regenerate itself from a single amputated leg. In the same way, decentralized organizations, like the Internet, the Apache Indian tribe and Alcoholics Anonymous, are made up of many smaller units capable of operating, growing and multiplying independently of each other, making it very difficult for a rival force to control or defeat them. Despite familiar examples-eBay, Napster and the Toyota assembly line, for example-there are fresh insights, such as the authors' three techniques for combating a decentralized competitor (drive change in your competitors' ideology, force them to become centralized or decentralize yourself). The authors also analyze one of today's most worrisome "starfish" organizations-al-Qaeda-though that group undermines the authors' point that the power of leaderless groups helps to demonstrate the essential goodness and trustworthiness of human beings.(Oct. 5)
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The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations
Start-up vets Brafman and Beckstrom illustrate the importance of decentralization.
Decentralization-the absence of structure, leadership and formal organization-has long held a not-so-secret secret: those who participate do so because they want to. Participants share an ideology; those who exercise influence do so by example; power and intelligence are distributed among all the people involved, who police themselves, happily contribute their knowledge and work cooperatively. The authors tender examples of effective decentralized entities, from AA to eMule to al-Qaeda to Wikipedia, and demonstrate how flexibility, shared power and mutability make them effective. Often, adding an element of decentralization to a traditional centralized business model, as Toyota did, takes advantage of everyone's experience and fosters a vibrant work environment. The trick, write the authors, is to find the sweet spot, "the point along the centralized-decentralized continuum that yields the best competitive advantage."
A convincing case for implementing leaderless organizations.
© 2000-2006 by The McGraw-Hill Companies Inc.