21st Century Institutions

February 2nd, 2011 by John Creighton in Projects

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A recent contribution to SLA FutureReady 365.

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20th Century centralized institutions were created to solve a specific set of problems:  Scarce resources, high production and carrying costs, cumbersome logistics and limited (by today’s standards) communications.

Traditional libraries are a perfect example of a centralized institution. The cost to produce and store books, periodicals and other information was expensive and required a large amount of space. Very few people could afford to purchase their own reading collection or had the shelf space to store more than a few books. The solution: public libraries. Communities pooled their resources (taxes) to provide people with access to information.

When people share resources, it is necessary to create a set of rules and regulations to ensure fairness and equity in how resources are distributed and used. Libraries made rules such as “a person can only check out a book for one week so others have a chance to read it, too.” A system of penalties and, sometimes, rewards were put in place to encourage people to follow the rules.

It was and is the responsibility of public boards and administrators of centralized institutions to decide how to allocate scarce resources. Many public decision makers followed the mass market axiom of, “What will help (or appeal to) the most people for the longest time.” Controversy emerged when people couldn’t agree on how to spend their pooled resources. Should the library buy a controversial book or not?

Centralized institutions also need a set of rules to function as an enterprise. For instance, communities typically could neither afford nor wanted to keep their libraries open twenty-four hours per day. Libraries set hours of operation so people would know when they could access information.

For nearly a century, perhaps more, people have been satisfied with this relationship with public and private institutions because centralization was the most practical thing to do.  People deferred to boards to make decisions; they conformed to the institution’s rules and regulations, and embraced the systems of penalties and rewards (how many readers remember the importance of perfect attendance at school). Our language developed to reflect our willingness (even if we grumbled) to conform to the needs of the centralized institution: Working nine-to-five, working for the weekend, spring break, summer vacation, 10 o’clock news, morning paper.

People’s willingness to conform to the needs of centralized institutions is waning. People have lost their patience with public boards and other centralized decision makers. People aren’t willing to conform to the institution’s hours of operation. They want access to information now, on their own time. And, people ignore penalties and rewards. For instance, few schools award “perfect attendance” and many parents scoff at attendance policies.

Why have people lost their patience with 20th Century centralized institutions? The problems these organizations were designed to solve are less severe or non-existent.  Put another way, it is economically possible and logistically practical for people to get what they want, when they want, how they want it.

Resources are more abundant than they were in the past. The costs to produce and carry goods are lower. The digitization of books and information is wonderful example of these shifts.  The marginal costs to produce, ship and store a book are all moving toward zero.

People are less interested in pooling their resources to buy things like books because more and more people can afford to purchase and store their own.  People are less interested in the product that appeals to the masses and more interested in products customized to their individual interests and needs. And, there is not as much need for people to agree on how to allocate scarce resources. Don’t like the history textbook the local school board chose for your child? There are several others online and the cost is next to free – or soon will be.

Indeed, people have come to expect options and choices. The idea of “one size fits all” is considered as old as the steam engine train. And, people’s growing expectations are not ending with choice. Increasingly, people expect to design, produce and manage their own experiences.  They will gravitate toward institutions that help them do these things.

21st Century institutions will need to help people solve a new set of personal and social problems. On the personal side of the ledger, the challenges of growing importance include how to help individuals:

  • Identify, organize and create options
  • Make informed and satisfying choices
  • Gain access to the tools of production, distribution, and collaboration
  • Form ad hoc, short term and long term communities
  • Sustain action over time.

On the social side of the ledger, the challenges are more difficult because the demand to solve them is not on the forefront of people’s minds. But, to ensure the ongoing health of our communities and our democracy, we will need to figure out ways to bridge differences between an increasingly diverse and segregated society and foster the democratic skills to ensure that we are able to make decisions around resources we still must share.

This is the challenge for libraries and other public institutions. How to make the shift from 20th Century centralized practices to 21st Century platform practices.

John Creighton, a Longmont, Colorado leadership consultant, writes on community life and public leadership at johncr8on.com. He can be found on Twitter @johncr8on and on Facebook.  See John’s presentation, “Emboldened Individuals – Platform Organizations” on SlideShare and read more of his work in Dispatches From The Heartland at the Communities at the Washington Times.

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