Fighting Flu From the Bottom Up

May 2, 2009 by  

supports for a bridgeOur new book has a chapter on how management has shifted from command and control to a model of “orchestration,” which is a term first used by Peter Drucker. The basic idea is that knowledge and communication have been turbocharged by technology. This means that the answers to most questions no longer reside at the top of an organization, as they did in the industrial economy. They are distributed among everyone in the organization. Better actions come when you set free the power of the knowledge and ideas at the bottom of the organization. That turns many traditional management approaches on their head.

The understanding of this is growing throughout our society. That’s why I was really glad to read David Brooks’ take on the global reaction to the swine flu crisis in the New York Times this week. He says:

In these post-cold war days, we don’t face a single concentrated threat. We face a series of decentralized, transnational threats: jihadi terrorism, a global financial crisis, global warming, energy scarcity, nuclear proliferation and, as we’re reminded today, possible health pandemics like swine flu….

The bottom line is that the swine flu crisis is two emergent problems piled on top of one another. At bottom, there is the dynamic network of the outbreak. It is fueled by complex feedback loops consisting of the virus itself, human mobility to spread it and environmental factors to make it potent. On top, there is the psychology of fear caused by the disease. It emerges from rumors, news reports, Tweets and expert warnings.

The correct response to these dynamic, decentralized, emergent problems is to create dynamic, decentralized, emergent authorities: chains of local officials, state agencies, national governments and international bodies that are as flexible as the problem itself.

Swine flu isn’t only a health emergency. It’s a test for how we’re going to organize the 21st century. Subsidiarity works best.

That’s the first time I have heard this term: subsidiarity. The Wikipedia entry for the term is interesting, linking Catholic social thinking and European Union. Probably not the last time however.

Of course, this approach would not be as successful without the fast communications available to us today. It is technology that has fueled the trend of decentralization. There is room for a lot of experimentation and innovation in this model–and, through good communications, the chance to spread the learnings about what’s working across the globe in the wink of an eye. Whatever happens, there will be a lot of management lessons coming from this crisis.

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