18 June 2010

Single Points of Failure

As I write this in 2010, our political, economic, cultural and social systems in the western world are for the most part driven by corporations.  Our art is subsidized by corporations, our charities are funded by corporations, our culture is promoted by corporations and our laws are defined by corporations.

These corporations come in various forms, whether they are businesses, governments, or religious corporations.  In many ways the corporate form is very useful.  It's one way to provide a structure for people to work toward a common goal.  It provides some level of predictability.  And in some cases, it provides for economies of scale.

Much has been written about the weaknesses of the corporate form, and the corruption it attracts so I leave that to others to draw attention to but there is one aspect of the corporate form that I don't see being written about, and that's the fact that they represent a single point of failure.  Big corporations have big failures.  We permit corporations to grow infinitely large and then rely on them not to fail.  But they do fail, we know they fail, and we permit it anyway.

In the enterprise software space the "one throat to choke" mantra is used to persuade the listener that putting all of your eggs in one basket is a good thing. What it hides though is the fact that the vendor represents a single point of failure, and when it's a large project, that often mean large failure.  The high failure rate of large IT projects is well known but how often are these throats actually choked?  Almost never.

If these large organizations never failed, that would be one thing, but the fact is, they do fail.  And somehow when we are voting, or shopping or doing our cost benefit analysis and selecting the vendor we forget that that entity we are dealing with may not be around tomorrow.  The "bet the farm" ideology invented hundreds of years ago and popularized during the industrial revolution is showing it's age in our current distributed global world.

When the costs of communication were high it made a lot of sense to build organizations as hierarchies to minimize the costs of communication through a top down pyramid and command and control theme. This model was so efficient that it offset the risks of the single point of failure. Today though, we have the internet and mobile phones minimizing those costs for everyone so the pyramid isn't adding as much value as it used to and the cost of the single point of failure is still there.

There are some structures and strategies though that can help with this.  They are used in organizations and projects that are designed with failure in mind.  These organizational models admit from the outset that there will be failures and rather than pretend that all is well and there will be someone to choke if anything goes wrong, they make failure part of the equation.

With the BP Oil Disaster destroying the gulf of Mexico, the failure of 247 US banks and millions unemployed due to the economic meltdown, people are starting to wake up to the enormous risk and costs of these single points of failure.  Simultaneously, open source software, open data, grass roots communities and cooperatives are becoming increasingly popular as people start to look for alternative ways to get things done.

Smart companies, governments and other organizations are letting go of "command and contol" and are discovering game changing philosophies based on engagement and collaboration that give them an edge that is not surprisingly almost non-existent in the traditional corporate form.

Collaboration, gifting and doing things for the sheer joy of working and contributing to the world and enhancing the quality of life of others are being rediscovered. And while we speak of these things as new, they are as old as civilization itself and were here long before the corporate form and will be here long after.


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