getting big stuff done: is this an organizational problem?

I’m a sucker for nutty futurist speculations.  So bear with me on this one.

A few nights ago I was watching Neal Stephenson’s talk on “getting big stuff done,” where he bemoans the lack of aggressive technological progress in the past forty or so years.  There’s obviously some debate about this, though he makes some good points.  He raises the question of why, for example, we haven’t yet built a 20km tall building despite the fact that it appears to be technologically very feasible with extant materials.  Nutty.  But an interesting question.  From a sci-fi writer.

Stephenson ends his talk on an organizational note and asks:

What is going on in the financial and management worlds that has caused us to narrow our scope and reduce our ambitions so drastically?

I like that question.  Even if you think that ambitions have not been lowered, I think all of us would like to see the big problems of the world addressed more aggressively.  (Unless one subscribes to the Leibnizian view that we live in the “best of all possible [organizational] worlds.”)  Surely organization theory is central to this.  This is particularly true in cases where technologies and solutions for big problems seemingly already exist – but it is the social technologies and organizational solutions that appear to be sub-optimal.  So, how can more aggressive forms of collective action and organizational performance be realized?   I don’t see org theorists really wrestling with these types of questions, systematically anyways.  It would be great to see some more wide-eyed speculation about the organizational forms and theories that perhaps might facilitate more aggressive technological, social and human progress.

I can see several reasons for why organization theorists don’t engage with these types of, “futurist” questions.  First, theories of organization tend to lag practice.  That is, organizational scholars describe and explain the world (in its current or past state), though they don’t often engage in speculative forecasting (about possible future states).  Second, many of the organizational sub-fields suited for wide-eyed speculation are in a bit of a lull, or they represent small niches.  For example, organization design isn’t a super “hot” area these days (certainly with exceptions) — despite its obvious importance.  Institutional and environmental theories of organization have taken hold in many parts, and agentic theories are often seen as overly naive.  Environmental and institutional theories of course are valuable, but they delimit and are incremental, and are perhaps just self-fulfilling and thus may not always be practically helpful for thinking about the future.

That’s my (very speculative) two cents.

Written by teppo

March 5, 2012 at 1:06 am

8 Responses

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  1. The thing that bugged me about that was when (Intellectual Ventures affiliate) Stephenson said that people who complain about patents are whiners. This is especially problematic given that this is a systemic problem that we could in principle fix, unlike most of the other things where it’s much less clear what is to be done.

    I much prefer Tabarrok’s articulation of similar issues



    March 5, 2012 at 2:07 am

  2. Reblogged this on Class(ic) Stories and commented:
    Need to find some ‘big stuff’ to work on!



    March 5, 2012 at 1:18 pm

  3. Miles, R.E., Miles, G., & Snow, C.C. 2005. Collaborative entrepreneurship: How communities of networked firms use continuous innovation to create economic wealth. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press – is an example of a fairly bold attempt to conceptualize how firms in the future can handle “the new big stuff”.



    March 5, 2012 at 4:49 pm

  4. Addressing Stephenson’s last question:

    Time to think; driven by the unknown.

    When catastrophes strike they have usually been from an obvious places, we are simple animals in a sense although I hate to invoke this word in economic terms.

    The issue in finance is that, for the first time, we have been capable of seeing the economic impact in real time and across the globe. Data transfer has been at the root of the problem, at its dissemination post and ex-anti. It was the wrong kind feeding the wrong models executed in the wrong time frames.

    The cause was debatable but the result compounded by the lack of proper response from the governance structures around the world. We have forgotten that freedom comes at a price and that price is governance rules that may be lax but need to be seen to be acted upon – they weren’t.

    Only in the last 24-months has the world drawn upon research (see Bank of England working papers) that explain how networks effects finance and economics. Yet Krugman and Minsky will tell you that the three body problem lie at the heart of national economic strategy: they had blinded themselves with Newtonian science aware that it didn’t work on the larger plane.

    There are many of us working on practical solutions using existing ontology’s fully aware of the gaps in organisational networks but hampered by self interest: money today, let tomorrow starve.

    Yet give them their due, the hiatus is thinking time because it is in governors best interests to get taxation and fiscal control under a proper scheme; their fortunes will follow the voters approval.

    Given the response time from current news feedback networks I think you’ll be surprised at will arise over the next few years.


    Stefan M Wasilewski

    March 5, 2012 at 6:05 pm

  5. Love thinking about this idea — my first step is to rewatch Tim Brown’s (IDEO) TED talk on thinking bit.


    Terri Griffith

    March 6, 2012 at 12:48 am

  6. For me the TED (etc) talks tend to be heavy on “RA, RA, RA!” and lower on substance (but then again, I’m an academic and somehow always manage to be skeptical, unhealthily so) – but I definitely think there is a space for carefully thinking about organizational possibilities.



    March 6, 2012 at 4:08 am

  7. I just finished The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves by Matt Ridley, a Hayekian look at history. From that context, allow me to suggest that railroads were not built across North America because central planners at the Bank of England thought they would be cool or because dons at Oxford theorized about the possibilities. For the answer, I look to another book, The Man Who Found the Money: John Stewart Kennedy and the Financing of the Western Railroads by Saul Engelbourg and Leonard Bushkoff. In short, innovation, invention, and discovery are unpredictable.

    One of the neighborhood dentists is offering your choice of an MP3 player (or a $20 Walmart card) to any new patient. Think of that. The MP3 player may be one of many “20km skyscrapers” of our time. The other night, I realized that I was carrying three cellphones another “20 km skyscraper.” Here on my Macintosh White Book, I can open another tab and click on Pandora to listen to music to meet my preferences, an improvement over changing stations on the FM radio herer, radio itself being a “20km skyscraper” from the Gernsback era.

    We never got the flying cars of the Jetsons, but there are 600,000 private pilots in America. If you want to learn to fly – and I did – all it takes is money; the technical challenge is met – in fact, I have flown planes older than I am and I was born in 1949. Aviation is another “20km skyscraper” ignored by Weber, Parsons, and Merton.

    Arthur C. Clarke famously predicted communication satellites — but in his conception, they were manned (indeed by males) by workers controlling and switching global broadcasts like railroad station masters. (Clarke was born in 1917.)

    “In 100 years we have gone from the steamship to the spaceship, but education still consists of someone lecturing to a passive array of listeners.” So let me ask: “What is the most technologically innovative thing you have done as a university professor?” I think it is this blog. … another unperceived 20km skyscraper.


    Michael Marotta

    March 6, 2012 at 2:23 pm

  8. […] getting big stuff done: is this an organizational problem? « […]


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