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TOC - Ch 1 - Ch  2 - Ch 3 - Ch 4 - Ch 5 - Ch 6 - Ch 7 - Ch 8 - Ch 9

Chapter 9: Intranet Futures

Intranet Organization: Steven L. Telleen, Ph.D. 


"Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future."  In the movie The Empire Strikes Back, the Jedi Master, Yoda, uses these words to answer Luke Skywalker's plea to know a specific outcome in the future. Futures are never clear, because there always are alternate possible futures that depend partly on our own individual choices and partly on the sum of choices we all make. 

In the rest of this chapter I will present three possible scenarios for the future of intranets, not as the only possible futures, or to pick one as correct,  but as a discipline to explore the implications of our choices and actions. The three scenarios are: Digital Feudalism, Digital Democracy, and The Digital Reformation. 

Digital Feudalism

The Stage

Digital Feudalism arises when one vendor controls the market through a combination of their proprietary protocols and large market share. In the pre-industrial days, feudal lords arose by controlling the land. In digital feudalism they arise by controlling the digital landscape, the protocols and standards that allow the operation and sharing of digital information. Like the feudal lords of the past, the new lords of digital space arbitrarily set rules that favor continuation of their positions and demand tributes and taxes from their subjects in the form of price setting based on what the market will bear rather than competitive alternatives. The digital armies that each lord tries to amass consist of the various application vendors and  integrators that can be enticed to develop their skills and wares in that lord's proprietary digital landscape and the analysts that act as ambassadors and emissaries for the digital domains. Some of these armies see themselves as contenders for the position of Emperor or Shogun. These  Digital Dukes form uneasy alliances, each vying for the position of Emperor. 

In feudal societies, the dominant organized religion frequently provided the only effective restraining force on the feudal lords, and that was limited and always in a delicate state of negotiation. Somewhat ironically, in digital feudalism it is the government that finds itself in the tenuous position of  trying to negotiate restraint for the good of the community. And, as with the church in advanced feudalism in Europe, the government finds itself as mistrusted as the feudal lords, because of abuses within its own power structure. 

The control of the digital lords reaches into the serf organizations through a series of positions (CIOs to programmers) that get and maintain authority through organizational sanction and technical knowledge, much like the bishops and scribes in European feudal times. Most have a vested interest in keeping the digital foundation centralized and complex, because, subconsciously, they understand that complexity maintains and builds their own power by forcing all information to flow through their gate. It is through their loyalty that an Emperor eventually will emerge. 

Once committed to a specific digital lord, the serf organization (customer) finds itself increasingly under that lord's control. It becomes more expensive and time consuming to switch allegiances with every piece of data,  new generation of logic or piece of equipment that gets committed to the digital lord's proprietary landscape. The feudal structure feeds the complexity, and provides relief, by automating more and more functions in a single, integrated solution. This, of course, reinforces the hold of the digital lord and the security of the internal scribes. The dependency becomes complete. 

Like all closed systems, the cost is stagnation. New features and functions have to be integrated, an increasingly expensive and time consuming task even for the digital lord. The integrated results not only are increasingly rigid, but require constant attention by the digital scribes to configure and maintain their functioning. The ability of the workers who create and modify the information to control or improve their own processes all but disappears. As with landed  feudal systems, or those created by misguided Taylorism in the industrial age, the workers lose power and commitment, and the serf companies begin to suffer in terms of productivity and innovation. A caste system begins to emerge. 

The Route There

Digital Feudalism arises out of confusion in the market place. In the beginning this confusion is unavoidable since we have no experience with the new technology or its application. Products compete based on innovative and distinctive features and functions. This is the experimental stage of the market. As the market and products mature, each begins to add and emphasize the features and functions that customers find valuable, and de-emphasize those that they do not. As our collective knowledge grows, the products begin to look quite similar, and differentiation comes from marketing and market share, rather than significant differences. However, underlying the functional similarity are proprietary protocols and tags, the "land" of the feudal lord. 

At this point, the companies falling behind in the marketing wars begin to form a standards movement. The leaders, of course, see no reason for standards. If the community standards begin to look viable, the leaders have developed a very effective strategy to maintain their position. If Digital Feudalism arises out of  confusion in the market place, then the most effective strategy is to maintain the confusion. The leader, or leaders, join the standards process. From the inside they may try to slow the standard, or water it down to render it ineffective. However, the most effective strategy is to embrace the standard, cultivate two or three additional companies, then break away proposing an "improved" variant of the standard that the rest of the players won't support. This maintains confusion in the market place, as the analysts recommend waiting on implementing standard products until the winner of the standards "wars" is declared. 

We have seen this multiple times in the past several decades. This was how IBM and Digital dealt with the standardized operating system, UNIX, that threatened to commoditize their hardware. While the tactic effectively weakened UNIX, the microprocessor created the same effect. Without a standardized operating system, the existing feudal lords inadvertently created an environment that favored Microsoft and Intel as the new feudal lords. Today, Intel continues the same strategy by creating proprietary ports and busses on the standard PC architecture, forcing peripheral suppliers and customers to choose,  in an attempt to drive its pitifully weak competition completely out of the market. It looks like the same strategy is shaping up in the writable DVD market. Several vendors (which coincidentally manufacture the currently available standard, writable CD drives) have broken away from the main standards group and proposed an alternative standard, creating confusion in the marketplace and probably extending the market life of their conventional CD products. And, Microsoft appears to be taking a similar approach with JAVA and the web browser itself. 

Of course Microsoft has another approach that has proven very effective. Because of their dominance at the operating system level, they can set arbitrary rules that give them the advantage in other arenas. The combination of steady revenues from the basic operating system and control over the internal operating system protocols allowed them to slowly overtake and displace application vendors in the spreadsheet, word processing, presentation and an expanding array of other markets. As they expand into the internetworking markets, they are using their desktop monopoly to drive their servers, with approaches and protocols that pre-empt the fast developing and more open community standards. If they can dominate either the browser or the web server market, they will have control. If they can dominate both, the control will come quickly and be absolute. There is no question that dictatorships are more efficient at these activities than democracies, at least in the short run. 

It is this perceived efficiency that is so seductive. Historically, democratic societies like the Romans (with Julius Caesar) or the French (with Napoleon) or more recently Germany (with Hitler) have regressed to an Emperor model. The Emperor provides a quick fix to the messiness and confusion that accompanies diversity. In at least some cases, the would be Emperor covertly encouraged the confusion to hasten the transition, just as the digital lords do today.  The short term efficiency takes precedent over the longer term cost. In religions these archetypal patterns (taking short term gains that create long term costs) are called sins. The reverse (taking the short term expense for a long term gain) is called a sacrifice. 

Just as in political democracies, the feudal lords can only gain and maintain control with the compliance of the community. The road to digital feudalism is built through a series of systems archetypes that Peter Senge (The Fifth Discipline) calls, "Shifting the Burden." Most companies start out in the digital world adding applications one at a time. Soon, they want to move content from one application to the next, or one machine to the next. The integration is difficult, and the central problem of integration and maintenance of applications arises. There are two routes to alleviate the discomfort. The more difficult and uncertain approach is to develop a modular, product independent infrastructure, based on community standards, a digital commons. The quicker fix is to alleviate the symptom by shifting the burden to a product supplier who will provide a suite of pre-integrated products in their proprietary digital landscape.

The quick fix, however,  is not permanent, eroded by the ever increasing need to integrate both new applications and to share content with other organizations who picked a different vendor. The vendor problem can be solved by the Emperor phenomenon described above.  But, the integration and maintenance of an increasingly complex application suite eventually overwhelms even the Emperor's resources and management capabilities. New features are slower to be added; schedules slip; work patterns become more rigid. This is not a problem for the Emperor, however, because any serious competition has long since gone out of business.

A consequence of shifting the burden is that the organization that shifts the burden begins to lose the very knowledge and skills that are most important to move from symptom correction to problem correction and resolve the crisis. If this begins to look like a drug dependency cycle, it should. Drug abuse is a "Shifting the Burden" system too.

Empires never last forever, and eventually a whole new structural approach arises, which offers a new solution to the business problems, and an invasion or revolution begins. Of course by this time, there is a legacy of proprietary content that cannot be easily or cheaply converted to the new solution. So, an immense amount of effort and money is spent either converting the content or creating and maintaining "middleware" to translate between the systems. What started as cheaper and more expedient eventually eats up (and probably surpasses)  the savings on the back end of the cycle. 

Effect on Diversity

Structurally, feudal systems do not select for diversity. They are a reaction to the inherent messiness and confusion that accompanies diversity. Just as political monopolies (the old Soviet Union for example) that try to centrally manage production and distribution of products decrease diversity, so do economic monopolies. The centrally managed integration strategy mentioned above makes it increasingly difficult to add new features, but even when new features do become available, they are added when it makes the most profit for the vendor, not the most benefit for the customer. Just as in feudal Europe, there are few opportunities for free market competition. Most entrepreneurs require the patronage of a feudal lord to survive, and any significant success will be appropriated quickly. 

Anyone who studies complex systems knows that diversity does not arise from a lack of regulation. Complex systems are built on a series of structural checks and balances that regulate and maintain diversity. When components in a complex system escape their checks and balances and increase their numbers at the expense of diversity,  we view the consequences as a serious, often terminal,  illness. When a set of cells monopolizes an organism, we call it cancer. When algae monopolizes a pond we call it putrification. Just as ignorant or static regulation can cause the illness or death of a complex system, so can the lack of regulation. 

Effect on Roles

Digital feudalism tends to maintain the current roles and structures found in most modern corporations. It is based on the Taylor organization model of shifting the burden to an outside expert, and thus supports the current M.I.S. and I.T. structures as consulting information engineers. It encourages the non-technical business specialists to continue avoiding responsibility for meeting their own information needs, keeping them dependent "users." Finally, it is a modern formulation of McGregor's Theory X management.  Any seasoned M.I.S. director will tell you that attempts to democratize the digital environment will just cause them headaches in the future, because the business units will quickly tire of managing their own information and turn it back to M.I.S., after they have made a mess of it. This is the modern information version of workers lacking the necessary internal motivation to act responsibly. McGregor looked at this as a self fulfilling prophecy. Senge would view it as the degeneration of the required knowledge and skills that comes from long-term shifting the burden. 

For the average employee this model becomes the equivalent of the assembly line for the information age. Automated programs, developed by the information engineers, are mindlessly fed with data by workers who are not required to think, and have little ability to alter the complex processes and programming to meet their customers special (and changing) requirements or improve their own productivity. Those who create the automated systems extol the virtues of efficiency and standardization created, while the workers using the systems become increasingly frustrated with their ability to improve things and increasingly alienated from their jobs. 

Digital Democracy

The Stage

Digital democracy does not come from making information and automated applications more easily available to non-I.T. specialists. It arises by making the digital environment, the ability to create, share, maintain and change digital content and processes, directly available to non-I.T. specialists. While it is possible that this could occur with enabling technology created under a benign dictator in digital feudalism, the conditions that create and maintain digital feudalism make it highly unlikely. Remember, central integration and complexity are part of the structural wall that maintains the power structure at all levels. 

Therefore, the second scenario is based on enabling technology that allows non-I.T. specialists to choose and deploy their own enabling technology. One route to digital democracy is for  web microservers (see Cisco, Cobalt Microservers, Compact Devices, Encanto Networks, Microtest, THiiN Line) to catch-on as a new functional delivery device. Web microservers are based on the concepts of location transparency and "objectization" of the functions. They start in departments as basic web servers that are well behaved network devices and require zero systems administration. This means they plug into the network, do not require systems configuration or set up and are discoverable and supportable by  SNMP, LDAP directory servers and other automated network services. 

Next, software vendors begin to sell their solutions bundled on these servers. This starts with functionality  for small and medium businesses (see Encanto Networks) and departments in large organizations. Eventually, the savings in systems administration costs become apparent so the "objectization" of functionality spreads to traditional corporate-wide functions. The application vendors, too, see savings because it is less expensive to develop and provide support  for a system that they have complete control over, they are the only application running on and that they configured. 

As experience is gained, both customers and suppliers begin learning better ways to modularize functions for the most manageability and flexibility. The traditional hardware and software markets break down, and server-side operating systems become completely transparent (and unimportant) to the customers. Customers don't care what the operating system is, because they no longer see it or manage it. They buy functionality, the way we buy an answering machine or a fax machine and plug it into our phone systems today. Only, in this case it might be "project management" or "workflow management" functionality. 

The functional applications interact with each other using standard content or agents, so they do not assume or directly affect one another as new functions are added and old ones are retired. Spider-based agents and LDAP directories begin to feed objects the way pre-integrated databases feed applications today. Issues around authentication and access privileges also become objectized as LDAP, certification and digital signature technology matures. The architectural and management perspective shifts from central-control and integration to self-control and discovery, from one-size-fits-all to supporting and managing diversity. The result is that digital functionality can be purchased and controlled by the non-technical departments and workers, giving them more control over their own information management and the ability to upgrade functionality with their changing requirements. 

In this scenario, the future is developed by diverse companies, driven by free-market conditions. Businesses can add  new technology continuously, in manageable chunks, without the huge conversion or integration issues found in today's centralized approach to systems that require end-to-end process and technical integration to work. Additionally, many of the systems administration costs around creating and managing the end-to-end integration disappear as web microservers begin to appear with LAN spiders, load balancers (see Network Appliances NetCache and Sun Netra Proxy Cache) and other distributed systems management functions to support the shared infrastructure responsibilities. 

An analogy might be the objectization that has taken place in electronics over the years. When many of my generation bought our first compact disk player, we had an older stereo amplifier, bought before compact disks were commercially available. But, the compact disk player plugged into the amplifier and worked, and it was not manufactured by the same supplier. The same was true of the audio portion of the VCR and will be true of DVD technology. Over the years many of us  have changed out and upgraded components, one at a time, until none of them are the originals, without ever replacing the whole system at one time. 

Pre-combined systems have not gone away. They are just less flexible objects that meet certain needs, generally around portability. My experience with pre-combined home stereo systems has been that when something happened, like the compact disk player quit working, the cost to fix it made getting a whole new system the lower risk choice. When I had three combination systems sitting around, each with a component not working, I finally went out and bought components. Interestingly, the modular components haven't broken (which may have something to do with simplifying and specializing). If they do, they can be replaced (or upgraded) individually. And, I am sure that DVD units will get attached to those amplifiers sometime  in the future. The trick is learning the most effective level of integration for specific uses, or in general systems language, the most stable points of equilibrium. 

The Route There

The community-owned web standards effectively make operating systems and server hardware brands unimportant. It doesn't matter what operating system underlies any specific web browser or  web server. When the proprietary protocols that define the defensible landscape are removed, by the digital commons, it creates an extremely threatening proposition for the reigning lords of digital feudalism. They will do everything in their power to either confuse the market or effectively capture the new territory and guide it back to proprietary dependencies. 

As in all democratic models, for digital democracy to occur, the citizens (customer organizations) must take the initiative and responsibility to create and maintain their own digital landscape. The democratic system in the United States remains viable because a structural system of checks and balances was invented to maintain the diversity of ideas and power. In the digital world, customers must value digital democracy, then invent and implement a structural system of checks and balances that prevents the capture of their digital landscape by any vendor. If organizations do not value digital freedom enough to create and maintain these checks and balances, the road back to feudalism will be swift and silent. It is easy to blame the system or to say that the actions (vote) of our organization can't make a difference, but as Benjamin Franklin said at the beginning of the American Revolution: "Gentlemen, if we don't hang together, we will all hang separately." 

Three important players in establishing digital democracy, as more than a temporary revolt in the feudal structure, are: Executives, C.I.O.s and Analysts and Writers. Executives first must pay attention to the digital landscapes they are creating in their companies. This may mean updating their knowledge of the technical possibilities and issues. The C.I.O.s must make a commitment to the principles of digital democracy. This is in-line with the CIO position, since most were created and staffed to shift perspective and focus away from the technology and back toward the business. This is just a continuation of that democratization process. Finally, the analysts and writers are important agents in helping to pull together and give form to the vision of the community-owned digital landscape, the digital commons. Without their focus on and defense of the principles of digital democracy and the digital commons, a key ingredient is missing. They are the "Fourth Estate," the free press of digital democracy who help document the journey and alert the community to abuse and vandalism of the digital commons. 

Government also plays a role in this scenario. Recently, the United States government has begun to recognize the threat of digital feudalism and has brought  legal action against Microsoft to try and maintain diversity. While government recognition of  the importance of diversity is a positive sign, the success of this particular technique is questionable. Past experience suggests that by the time the symptoms become actionable, the competition already is dangerously weakened. Furthermore, by the time the court cases and appeals are concluded, the competition will be gone, regardless of the legal or political outcome. The anti-trust laws were designed to protect against economic price fixing in the industrial age not monopolistic control of  digital landscapes. In today's environment, these laws treat symptoms rather than correct the systemic problem. 

A more proactive course would be for the government to build a preference for diversity into a structural form of checks and balances. They are a large enough buying block that this becomes a more effective, timely and lasting  tool.  There are many creative ways they could create checks and balances. One, presented for example purposes, would be to create a purchasing policy that says that within five years no more than 50% of the systems in any government organization can be from the same vendor. This would mean that no more than 50% of the operating systems on the desktop could be from Microsoft, no more than 50% of the web browsers could be from Netscape, no more than 50% of the microprocessors could be from Intel. 

To create even more diversity, the maximum percentage could be lowered to 40%, thus insuring at least three vendors in each category. Unlike traditional government regulation, an approach like this encourages and supports free enterprise, and it is not confined to the United States government. The European Economic Community, other large government purchasing blocks and even large corporations have this same power to implement structural checks and balances that strengthen their own ability to cope with future change and strengthen the free enterprise system in the process. 

The example above is not very different from historical government policies requiring three competing bidders for major purchases. Again, the problem with the three bidder policy in the digital age is that it was designed to maintain  price competition, not to maintain an open digital landscape, a digital commons. Dell, Compaq and Gateway meet the three bid policy, but all three are part of the same digital empire. The diversity is in packaging and marketing only, not in who controls the digital landscape. 

The advantage to the structural approach is that it is not simply a reaction to a threat "from out there." It recognizes that we all are part of the system that creates these results, and that under the current structure, digital feudalism is the outcome. In another turn of events it might have been IBM, Apple, Netscape or the XYZ Corporation rather than Microsoft and Intel, but without appropriate checks and balances it invariably would be someone. The structural approach also works dynamically into the future, using the strengths of the free enterprise system to maintain diversity and free enterprise itself. If it is widely adopted, it becomes the social compact of the modern digital age, a cultural ethic that helps us to "hang together" to maintain the digital commons important to each of us individually. 

Effect on Diversity

Digital democracy requires diversity. Democracy provides for individual choice, and individual choice requires diversity to choose among. In digital democracy, the question is not whether to support diversity, but how much diversity can be supported and what kinds of regulating processes are required to maintain it. The approach suggested above is one possible way to  regulate the current leader, and encourage a certain level of competition as a minimum. It changes the rules of the game to insure companies always have viable competition to keep them competitive. However, a set level of diversity is not the only requirement to keep competition healthy. The three-way competition among American auto makers lost its driving force in the 1960s and was only rekindled by additional competition from the outside. 

Effect on Roles

In digital democracy, the role of M.I.S. and I.T. changes from the "do-for-you" technical specialist of the Taylor model, to the maintainer and supporter of the organization's digital landscape. The goal becomes strengthening  the organization by enabling and strengthening everyone's ability to create, share and use organizational knowledge. Without an I.T. commitment to provide an infrastructure that supports long-term enablement, diversity, change and choice, the foundation of digital democracy will not hold. 

Intranets have the potential to become a key enabler (and the technical infrastructure) for learning organizations. As the digital technology continues to become more accessible to non-technical people, it will enhance the way we interact as organizations. However, we must remember that many of the current roles in our organizations have been dependent on technical information specialists longer than their current occupants. This has hindered individuals from gaining  the understanding, vision and skills they need to take on the new responsibilities of digital democracy. Gaining the understanding, vision and skills will require growth, support and mutual respect from everyone. There is no recipe for making this transition, but the transition itself forms the basis for a learning organization. Marvin Weisbord, in his book, Productive Workplaces, provides an excellent introduction to the democratization of the workplace and the challenges this entails. His principles apply to this intranet scenario even though the book was written before the advent of today's intranet technology. 

The Digital Reformation

The Stage

This scenario is called the digital reformation because like the Reformation in Europe, it challenges the digital priesthood. In its extreme, I.T. and M.I.S. departments are disbanded, and the computing infrastructure is moved to Independent Service Providers (ISPs). Programmers and  network administrators work for the ISPs rather than internal organizations. The only remnants in the internal organizations are functions dealing with strategic needs and contracts. The Chief Knowledge Officer (CKO) has replaced the CIO and is focused more on the use and sharing of information to solve existential and unique business problems than on the technology and infrastructure of data transactions, storage and retrieval. 

Organizations no longer have large physical facilities as most people work from home or small, local centers. Content to be shared is placed on servers on the Virtual Private Network (VPN). Some of the servers may be owned by the organization, but the ISP can provide the resources in a more cost effective way by distributing the working servers around the network and providing automatic load balancing through caching proxy servers. 

Most companies started with a single ISP, but the encryption and authentication  technology makes it possible for employees to use different ISPs for access across the Internet. This has stimulated a battle for services, the larger ISPs attempting to provide advantages only available through integrated services, and the smaller ISPs offering better local support and pricing. The integrated services of the larger ISPs are designed to capture the customer outside the community-owned standards. It is not clear if diversity will remain or a few feudal lords will arise in the ISP space, although under the current system of checks and balances the emergence of feudal lords in this scenario is a question of when rather than whether. 

The Route There

The digital reformation scenario is driven by a different dynamic than the previous scenarios. Here the driving force is the mobility and distribution of the workforce. Already the combination of congested highways, expensive office space and extensive travel is leading many workers to the virtual office. The intensification of these pressures, combined with improved network and communication services and increasing experience with managing virtual projects will likely fuel the continuation of this movement. As this happens, the intranet as digital infrastructure begins to take on a new dimension. 

The networks of most organizations are not extensive enough to cover the physical geography of the new virtual workplace. The cost to build a private network is prohibitive. Therefore, most organizations already have turned to an ISP to provide these services outside their central campuses. Sophisticated encryption and routing allows these ISPs to provide each organization with a VPN at a fraction of the cost of a physical private network. As the workplace continues to move toward the virtual office, it does not take much to imagine a time when the ISP network accounts for most of the network traffic and expenses in many organizations. 

As this happens, the question begins to arise as to why maintain any server hardware at all. Why not locate the hardware at the ISP site and let them operate it. This may be done as a service where the customer owns the hardware, or by the customer renting  the data space, processing power and even application functionality from the ISP. At first there will be concern about letting a stranger handle the data. However, with experience (and the development of checks and balances), this concern will subside, just as it did with letting banks hold our money. 

The process ends when the organizations begin to close down their own private LANs and data centers, disband their M.I.S. departments and manage the I.T. function as they would their auditing, banking or phone services. 

Effect on Diversity

The effect on diversity is uncertain. If a majority of the computing infrastructure shifts to the ISPs it will reduce the server market to many fewer customers. Either of the previous scenarios could be adopted by policies of the ISPs. Large ISPs could form a tight alliance with specific vendors (or their own vertical company as Microsoft appears to be doing) for special prices or favors, or they could form their own buying block to enforce diversity. If they can create a high enough hurdle to keep customers with their service, they can even play out both scenarios at once. On the one hand the ISPs become the new digital lords, and on the other they force diversity and competition among their suppliers. 

The single most important factor may be how much of the computing infrastructure organizations choose to keep themselves. The use of organization-owned web microservers as network plug-ins for functional applications and data storage would maintain the ability to switch, or even share, ISPs. The organization might keep their devices at their own site, or on the ISP site. The important factor would be the ownership of the devices and their contents. 

Effect on Roles

 The Digital Reformation creates the most extensive changes to the roles of technical information specialists. As these roles shift and consolidate under ISPs one can imagine a transformation on the scale that occurred as the role of scribes transitioned to typesetters and printing press operators working for printing companies rather than the Church. Overall, fewer people will be needed to maintain the infrastructure (although absolute numbers may stay the same as a higher volume of information and traffic builds) and the functions they perform will shift in focus and skills. 

The effect on non-I.T. specialists is not as clear, and may be difficult to distinguish from the effects of the overall shift to working in a virtual office environment. There will be pressure to enable non-I.T. specialists to do more for themselves, because it is too expensive to provide direct support in the virtual environment. The level and quality of enablement will likely be the way ISPs compete for corporate business in the formative stages of the transition. It also is likely to be the place where they attempt to create proprietary locks. 

As in the the Reformation in Europe, both dictatorships and democracies can emerge. There may be a long series of revolutions as organizations adjust and learn new styles of coordination and interaction. 


How intranets and organizations will coevolve is uncertain. As indicated in the earlier chapters of this book, there appear to be some information trends in motion that span billions of years. There is no question that intranet technology has opened up new possibilities for enabling more open and democratic management processes, continuing a corporate trend that spans the entire Twentieth Century. But, the digital landscape and the digital commons are new territory for us, a territory that has not yet developed the checks and balances of a stable system. In American culture, developing checks and balances in the digital landscape requires the painful shift of cherished values, our automatic mistrust of any form of conscious regulation in the external market. The alternative, developing checks and balances for the digital landscape by unguided trial and error, may require us to go through an indefinite period of digital feudalism. 

Avoiding digital feudalism requires us to replace our naive view of the world as a simple system built on immediate and predictable causes and effects with a view that the world consists of  many complex systems interacting in non-linear ways. In direct contrast to a value that mistrusts regulation, the key value has to shift to embrace structural regulators that maintain the order, self-stabilization and self-organization at each level of system interaction. There is no question that applying regulations based on simple system assumptions  to complex, interacting, systems will cause undesirable, and sometimes disastrous, results. But, a knee-jerk reaction, that denies the importance of stimulating and inhibiting regulators in a dynamic state of balance, also can destroy the very outcomes we wish to achieve. Both the framers of the American Constitution (checks and balances) and Adam Smith (the invisible hand) recognized the importance of these complex systems regulators, even before general system dynamics were formally studied.

However, perhaps this counter-intuitive effect, of unregulated free markets degenerating into monopolies, is not so far off from our real values after all. The free market does not seem to be a cherished value for processes inside the organization. Here lack of choice and control seem to be the most commonly enacted value, particularly among those responsible for the digital infrastructure. The emergence of digital feudalism makes this position more tenable. We do not have to acknowledge our own values and desires for simple solutions and control. We can continue to espouse democratic values and blame any discrepancies on forces outside our control. Our love-hate relationship with the feudal lords reflects our own internal conflicts between the responsibilities of freedom and the impotence of dependency; between the sacrifices of equality and the exhileration of power.

In the end it comes down to honesty and values. How honest are we willing to be with ourselves about our real motivations and values. Espousing free markets without assuming responsibility to maintain diversity  when they begin to degenerate to monopoly  points out a dishonesty in values. Espousing democracy without assuming responsibility to maintain choices for everyone points out a dishonesty in values. Humans seem to be particularly adept at maintaining these discordant espoused versus actual values, a phenomenon psychologists call cognitive dissonance. 

The future of intranets and the future of human organizations are intimately tied. The direction taken will not be determined by technology, or free markets. It will be determined by our choices and our values. The only question that remains is how consciously we will make those choices and how willing we are to face our own internal conflicts among diversity and control,  power and democracy, responsibility and dependency. As we wrestle with our modern warlords and demons, we find ourselves living in  interesting times, with uncertain outcomes.

Table of Contents

Original Version: January, 1998
Last Updated: January, 1998
Copyright 1998 - Steven L. Telleen, Ph.D.

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