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Institutions: What’s the Worst That Could Happen?

There are man interesting discussions happening right now concerning the International Society of Automation (ISA) and its current travails with regard to its membership, publications, and exposition.  For those not familiar with the situation, this volunteer organization has been around for over sixty years and has come upon tough financial times, not unlike most organizations.  Two of its major revenue generating enterprises (its InTech magazine and ISA Expo trade show) have declined precipitously and are necessitating major changes.

The dialog is starting to reach a boil with comments like those recently posted on Jim Pinto’s web site by former ISA Executive Director Glenn Harvey.  I wanted to focus on just one statement in his response, in which he said “Who knows, but if large numbers of members do not call for change, ISA will keep doing what it has been doing and the results will be the same.”  Although I certainly don’t disagree with him, there is a larger message here for institutions in general; in our Web 2.0 world, that’s not the worst thing that could happen to you.

Do-It-Yourself Institutions are possible in the world of Web 2.0

Do-It-Yourself Institutions are possible in the world of Web 2.0

DIY Institutions

When it comes to institutions like ISA, dissatisfied members used to have two choices; to stay with the institution and either live with it or try to affect change, or to find a better institution that more closely aligned with the member’s needs and desires.  If there wasn’t a suitable competitor, then the institutions had very little need or incentive to change or adapt.  If competition is a factor, then the institutions would generally react only when and if they started to lose members.

But today there is a third and more unsettling option for these dissatisfied members – they can simply do it themselves.  As the transaction costs of building, organizing and managing organizations approaches zero (thanks to the explosion of free Web 2.0 applications), members who are dissatisfied with their institutions can simply go and build their own.  Why pour time and energy into fighting an established bureaucracy (an exhausting, sometimes nasty endeavor), when one can instead simply invest the same amount of time and energy into building the institution they wanted in the first place.

“Surely You Exaggerate”

If you think I’m overestimating the power of Web 2.0, then you need to read my blog more often (just kidding). But seriously, I’ll illustrate this with two examples.  The first is a presentation by Guy Kawasaki about how quickly and inexpensively he was able to launch a company:

The second example is a project on which I’m currently working as IT Director for a NH gubernatorial campaign.  I was able to put together an entire IT infrastructure for the campaign that includes staff collaboration tools, shared calendar, web site and email hosting, web site design and development, customer relationship management (CRM), and e-newsletter services for less than $90 per month and under$500 in up front costs.  The entire system is cloud-based, which allows the campaign staff to work remotely and eliminates the need for purchasing software licenses.

So, the catch phrase is no longer “If you build it, they will come.”  Now, it’s “If you don’t build it, they will.”

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