Basically, no one is in charge

by Jon Thompson on May 24, 2009

It is really hot in Rome today. Summer has arrived in full force and I am sure it will get even worse. I am thinking that an AC unit might be needed if we are going to make it through the summer. I just joined a gym not far from my place that has a fantastic pool and after doing some laps this morning I am looking forward to heading back over there after the sun drops a little more. I am really getting to like the Italian tradition of just laying low on Sundays and I no longer feel guilty about spending the day reading, catching up on correspondence and (finally) writing another blog post. Thankfully, this post will be short and sweet.

I love this picture:

I know it is about as sexy as a piece of dried salt cod but for me shows the difference between how we think things function and how they actually function.  Basically, no one is in charge.  Well, ok, it looks like Cole is kind of important but in Rob Cross’ Organizational Network Analysis summary it turns out that Cole is some mid-level guy that just happens to be sort of important.  (How did I get here? I follow @timoreilly who follows @kanter who writes Beth’s Blog that has this story that featured Rob Cross.)

We spend so much time trying to tighten up and streamline structures that just don’t exist anymore, except for on paper, and we forget that our job is actually to spend our time making sure the world keeps turning.  It struck me that in so many businesses and organizations no one has any idea what they are doing.  We are all just technically proficient and there are so few people that can effectively orchestrate these proficiencies that we all just end up doing our best.  While not a new concept I always feel better for a while after each time I have this epiphany.

What I really like about this image is that if you stare at the diagram on the right long enough you realize it looks like a microblog, it looks like Twitter.  How messed up is that?  It doesn’t look like Facebook (actually, I have no idea what Facebook looks like because I hate it) and it doesn’t look like email, chat, etc.  What it does look like (at least to my heatstroked mind) is Twitter.

While I don’t think I am going to get a bunch of WTF!?’s because nobody is really reading my blog anymore and I will probably lose a few readers I also just might get you to add me to your Bookmark Toolbar if you are also feeling slightly bonkers today.  In any event please let me know what you think about my observation and whether or not you agree with me.

Personally, I think it is just fine that no one is in charge and that we’re all just winging it. We’ll get there eventually but first let’s see if Twitter can figure out what to do with their data.  That might give us some idea as to how get to where we’re going.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Carlo May 24, 2009 at 11:46 am

Well if it’s as sexy as “dried salt cod” I must like dried salt cod. What’s appealing about the model is that it’s natural. There’s nothing forced about it. No square peg in a round hole anymore. Organizations emerging into the conceptual age operate this way. Organizations stuck in the industrial age stare at it like dry salt cod.

I must admit, I am new to Twitter, but I am finding it very welcoming and a natural way to maneuver through a complicated world.

Jon Thompson May 24, 2009 at 11:55 am

Someone actually gave me a salted cod once. Not exactly tasty but then again I didn’t bother cooking it.

Exactly my point. Instead of dictating the way information flow we watch how it flows and then respond accordingly. I am thinking that Twitter, in the form of an in house microblog, is going to reshape the way we manage businesses.

Thanks for dropping by!



Paul C May 24, 2009 at 12:09 pm

One of the tools in my (admittedly dusty) toolbox is is an information organigramme – I’d do this as I was entering a new organisation, or trying to understand how an organisation functioned. Tracking information flows, identifying hubs and spokes, centres of gravity – it all seemed pretty obvious to me at the time. The discrepancy between traditional conceptions like the organigramme and alternative views is interesting in itself, but it’s important to recognise that they serve different functions – the organigramme is about accountability rather than efficiency, for example. The problem with most organisations is that they don’t recognise that you need different organisational tools for different tasks…

Jon Thompson May 24, 2009 at 1:08 pm


Yes, thanks for clarifying that point. Organigrammes define routes of accountability but do not represent how information actually flows within an organization. What I find most interesting is that we now have an application which mimics the ‘actual’ structure of an organization. Many other applications fail to achieve this. It is my understanding that Twitter was conceptualized by @jack as a tool to better serve the needs of NY cabbies. Do our organizations resemble the streets of NY and we’re merely cabs plying the avenues?



Carlo May 24, 2009 at 1:48 pm

Actually more like SOHO.

It is interesting that accountability is the point of hierarchy. It rarely works. The real power actually lives within the different sources of information. Within the hierarchy, to insure accountability you have place immense controls on information. The US Military learned this in the Vietnam War, they knew that in the future top down command and control information structures rarely could project what was happening in the field. To be successful, information needs to flow more freely either in battle or South of Houston.

Beth Kanter May 25, 2009 at 6:12 am

Hi Jon,

Thanks for your reflections on the diagram. I pulled from an essay that Rob Cross wrote about how networks within organizations. I read his work because of reading a wonderful essay by Mark Pesce about the Tower and the Cloud as it applies to how we’re all so connected because of social networks like Twitter (and Facebook) and others.

I’m curious – do have some great stories about how humanitarian organizations have worked more like networks than hierachircal structures?

You see, I”m working on a book with Allison about all this and am on the hunt for stories.

Jon Thompson May 25, 2009 at 10:00 am

Many thanks for stopping by and funny you should do so today. It just so happens that we posted for the first time today about what has been until now a pretty hush hush project. It is called CipCip (Italian for Twitter) and I believe it is the humanitarian aid industry’s first in house microblog. You can read more about the project here but suffice to say I am a pretty proud papa today. I’ll write a full post on what I can shortly but wanted to let you know that I think we have a pretty good example of what you’re looking for. If you dig back a few stories, or do a search with the term Laconica on this site, you will see a bit of what led up to the birth of CipCip.

Jon Thompson May 25, 2009 at 11:55 am

Makes me think of MSF-Holland. All their decisions are field based as opposed to the French that still believe in central command. I never really cared for it when I was in the field.

Jon Husband May 25, 2009 at 10:16 pm

Henry Mintzberg once wrote an HBR article about what he called “organigraphs”, which depicted the flow of activities into, through and out of organizations. Such a “concept map” can often give people a much more rapid and effective basic understanding of the workings and dynamics of an organization than staring at one of those danged org charts 😉

Organigraphs: Drawing How Companies Really Work”, by Mintzberg, H. and L. Van der Heyden

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