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The Economies of Small

1st March 10

'Frenzy' by Amayu, courtesy of Flickr

'Frenzy' by Amayu, courtesy of Flickr

“The money on the table is like krill: a billion little entrepreneurial opportunities that can be discovered and exploited by smart, creative people.” Landon Kettlewell, fictional CEO Kodak/Duracell in Cory Doctorow’s “Makers”

I’ve finally finished reading Cory Doctorow’s new novel “Makers” and – like a lot of people I suspect – needed to take a little break afterward to put my brain back together again. It’s the usual Doctorow high octane cocktail: stuffed full of imaginative near-future action & immutable human frailty, at times the plot veers close to depicting a post-capitalist, economic Armageddon. I’m not going to spoil the book for anyone who hasn’t read it by saying more.  Instead, against an ever-increasing backdrop of recent pieces examining crowdsourcing (here are two of our own, here and here), I wanted to dig quickly into a single thought that the book provoked in me within its first few pages.

What if, instead of thinking about sourcing from the crowd, we reverse engineer that thought. In other words, why not send the company out into the crowd?

As Doctorow’s character Kettlewell (more force of nature than human being) puts it:

“Our business plan is simple: we will hire the smartest people we can find and put them in small teams. They will go into the field …capitalized to find a place to live and work, and a job to do. A business to start. Our business to start. Our company isn’t a project that pull together on, it’s a network of like-minded, cooperating autonomous teams, all of which are empowered to do whatever they want, provided that it returns something to our coffers. We will explore and exhaust the realm of commercial opportunities, and seek constantly to refine our tactics to mine those opportunities, and the krill will strain through our mighty maw and fill our hungry belly. This company isn’t a company any more: this company is a network, an approach, a sensibility.”

In our world, we regularly talk about the agency of the future being a ‘networked’ agency, if it isn’t already. It’s not who you employ on the payroll, it’s who those people are connected to on the outside. Only Superman can ‘do it all’ at warp speed, the rest of us need strong, mutual partnerships and a bucket of caffeine. Well-managed crowdsourcing takes that a step further, enabling a kind of controlled serendipity: potentially speeding the process to commercial & creative gain. Co-creation is a strand of crowdsourcing that can lead to physical production in many cases – think Nike ID and the rest. At the root of both is a flattening or democratizing of media and, to some degree, production.

As an aside, this is something John Willshire @willsh takes on a (significant) step in his presentation for the Battle of Big Thinking, where he talks eloquently about social production. On flicking around the interwebs as you do before you start to put fingers to keyboard, I discovered that Faris – of course – has already linked Makers and Willsh’s presentation with an excellent piece in praise of fabbers (the 3D printers that feature heavily in Doctorow’s new book and an innovation that also gets a nod in Willsh’s presentation), with the conclusion that:

“As Wilsh points out, we are moving towards the technologies necessary for social production….Anything that exists digitally can be copied and distributed at zero cost, and once everyone has a  fabber [3D printer], a new type of industrial revolution seems inevitable.”

Indeed. Alex Bogusky and John Winsor also talk about democratizing prototyping in Baked In and the impact that can have on how a company actually behaves. This leads back to my initial thought here, which is less about 3D printing per se and a lot more to do with the radical re-structuring of an organization. When technology has enabled ‘company culture’ (think the connections between people brought together for a commercial purpose) to exist outside of four square walls, knowledge to be shared instantly, timezone differences used to increase not hinder corporate efficiency etc -  isn’t it time we start really living the dream of the networked enterprise? Empowering small, autonomous, nimble teams to go out and source the next solution?

This isn’t just a way to reinvent red-blooded western capitalism (check out the comments on Tor.com where Makers was serialised ahead of publication); it might also be a way to look at developing economies. Let’s skip the consolidated corporate, ‘mass production + mass media’ stage and embrace a micro economic model where everyone can be an entrepreneur, a maker, a seller, a dreamer.

A final point on size – we’re all used to hearing the number ’150′ cited as the ‘optimum organizational size’. As the business strategist Tom Peters put it in 1994:

“Arguably, we got away with violating this limit during the age of mass production and hyperspecialization, when the traditional craftsmen’s imagination was subordinated to machine logic. Now, brains, imagination, craft, and whole jobs are once again the order of the day and 150 people, give or take, may again be the right group size.”

In a flat world, might 150 in fact be far too large? Might a network of multiple, much smaller, autonomous teams actually be more commercially successful than a conventional corporate body?

Doctorow seems to conclude somewhat ruefully that simple human will or belief is the greatest obstacle to this approach succeeding. What do you think? Does this model feel viable or is it just venture capitalism taken to an over-inflated extreme?

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