For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
— Walt Whitman, Song of Myself
Put simply [social atomism] is the common assumption that the primary unit of analysis is the individual and that communities (and society) are aggregations of individuals and negotiated interests between those individuals … Atomism, or individualism, is the legitimising framework for liberal democracy and free market economics.
— Dave Snowden, Social Atomism, Identity and Natural Numbers
It is within all this that we find the real accelerants for the fall of Public Relations and the rise of Public Leadership: atomisation, activism and the asymmetry of power and influence.
— Robert Philips, Trust Me, PR is Dead
Our mass production-era sensibilities prevent us from seeing the value of mass differentiation because we are programmed to drive towards a one-size-fits-all formula for most products.
— Nicholas Vitalari & Haydn Shaughnessy, The Elastic Enterprise
In 2002, developing some of the ideas he and his writing partners had explored in The Cluetrain Manifesto, David Weinberger published Small Pieces Loosely Joined. In a relatively short but incisive study, he explored some of the effects of the still nascent world wide web on knowledge and our perception of time and space, among several other topics of interest. Weinberger’s title perfectly prefigured new ways of organising, working, collaborating and cooperating that would emerge over the subsequent years. These would be informed by loose frameworks, time-bound partnerships and shared platforms, which circumvented traditional organisational boundaries.
Enabled by technological advancement, people took advantage of the elisions of time and space that this made possible to build border-crossing relationships in order to get stuff done. Notions of where people did work, who they worked with, what they worked on and when they did the work all began to be challenged as a consequence of these emergent changes. So too the clearly defined roles and responsibilities of the individual. As the Cluetrain authors had predicted, the hyperlink really did have the potential to subvert hierarchy. So too the connections and conversations they enabled.
The notion of small pieces loosely joined is one of the governing ideas that inform my work on peloton formations. This makes a case for the responsiveness, adaptiveness and fluidity not only of the modern organisational structure but of those who work within them too. My thesis is that to participate in the modern workplace, an individual will have to become adept at switching from leading to following, from specialising to generalising, from solitary practice to teamwork. They will have to constantly adapt to context, shapeshifting as required. Not unlike members of the professional cycling peloton who day-by-day, sometimes hour-by-hour, have to switch in and out of different leadership, followership and expert roles, collaborating, cooperating, serving, competing.
Another book that appeared towards the end of the last century, Gordon MacKenzie’s Orbiting the Giant Hairball, contained hints and foresight regarding the ways in which the modern workplace might become increasingly atomised. Change agents, for example, might unhook themselves from the constraints of corporate hierarchy, migrating to the edges of their known worlds, pushing at the boundaries, bridging to the outside, the unknown. Internally, they might campaign for a dual operating system of the kind that John Kotter discusses in Accelerate. Or exit the organisation entirely, maintaining connections in a freelance capacity, making the old hairball one planet among several in an ever-expanding solar system. The way was being prepared for the porous organisation; one which relied as much on partnerships with other companies, and a cadre of freelancers, as it did on the people on its own payroll.
The evolving pattern began to affect public organisations too, either through privatisation, public-private partnerships or a radical rethink about organisation and governance. The story of the NHS in the UK continues to unfold, and is a fascinating case study in this respect. But this is not exactly a new situation. We have seen monolithic organisational structures dismantled before, creating opportunities for new ways of working, new forms of organising. Take the example of the film industry, for example.
Cinema quickly developed from novelty attraction to fully-fledged industry in no time at all. It established itself as a lucrative, cultural machine. In the USA, the filmmaking centre soon shifted from New York to Los Angeles, which offered many more hours of the sunlight that the early cinematographers required in order to capture good quality images on celluloid. Elsewhere scientific management practices were taking root in big emergent industries, with the success of Ford’s car manufacturing earning particular notice. Similar conveyor-belt like approaches developed in Hollywood cinema, covering end-to-end endeavour: from initial idea, narrative conception, performance, photography and editing, to its eventual printing, distribution and display. Big businesses emerged, monopolies of the few, horizontally and vertically integrated, with names like Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox. The addition of sound strengthened the monopolies and ushered in the so-called Golden Era that extended through the 1930s and to the end of WWII.
The post-war period witnessed successful challenges to the established paradigm. The first atoms broke loose, new production companies began to emerge. Some were associated with marquee names: actors who had broken free of arrangements that had made their careers the ‘property’ of the big film studios; directors too whose value was beginning to be recognised and celebrated by critics influenced by developments in literary theory. In a key ruling, The United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc., the studios were forced to divest themselves of their theatres, fundamentally changing their distribution and exhibition model. There was evidence too of greater partnership with small and independent production companies. Film credits began to change, reflecting the increasing atomisation of the industry. This was something that would extend well beyond the USA, affecting the industry as a whole.
A comparison between the opening credit sequences of a classical Hollywood film from the 1930s and a recent popular success is illuminating. The Thin Man was a well-received adaptation of a Dashiell Hammett novel, which was rapidly filmed and released in 1934. A single title card establishes that this is a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer production and lists the principal and supporting stars, director and producer, all of whom were on contract to MGM. A second card acknowledges the source novel and some of the behind-the-scenes talent that worked on the film. There is also a small nod to Cosmopolitan, which suggests that William Randolph Hearst may have had some financial interest in the production. Nevertheless, this is clearly packaged as an MGM film and relied on the studio’s own people and exhibition network for all phases of its development and distribution.
Mike Leigh’s 2014 art-house and critical success, Mr. Turner, is a different proposition altogether. The opening titles are a lengthy read: (1) Film 4, Focus Features International & BFI present (2) a United Kingdom / French Republic / Federal Republic of Germany co-production (3) in co-production with Diaphana and France 3 Cinéma and Amusement Park Films (4) with the participation of Canal+, Ciné+ and France Télévisions (5) produced by Xofa Productions in association with Lipsync Productions (6) A Thin Man Film. All this before the viewer is informed who is in the film or, indeed, what it is called.
I wonder, if we were writing the credits to the multiple projects that consume so much of our time today, whether they would reflect equal levels of atomisation, of small pieces loosely joined in common purpose?
But in terms of how and where work actually gets done, there is very little to beat the small, agile team of committed people with a clear shared goal. I doubt even the most timid consultant or vendor could make an argument that hierarchical operations are the most efficient way to get work done. For companies trying to become more competitive in the 21st Century, we foresee a rebalancing of structure with a reduction in hierarchy towards what we might label a minimum viable hierarchy, with pods or agile teams growing from the branches, and more focus on developing the lateral social fabric of communities and networks.
— Lee Bryant, The Limits of Social Technology within Existing Organisational Structure and Culture
A swarm organization is a decentralized, collaborative effort of volunteers that looks like a hierarchical, traditional organization from the outside. It is built by a small core of people that construct a scaffolding of go-to people, enabling a large number of volunteers to cooperate on a common goal in quantities of people not possible before the net was available.
— Rick Falkvinge, Swarmwise
Decentralization has been lying dormant for thousands of years. But the advent of the Internet has unleashed this force, knocking down traditional businesses, altering entire industries, affecting how we relate to each other, and influencing world politics.
— Ori Brafman & Rod A. Beckstrom, The Starfish and the Spider
The more fully we believe a model is reality, the more rigid the model becomes. And the more rigid it becomes, the more it confines us.
— Gordon MacKenzie, Orbiting the Giant Hairball