Organized To Share

For the first half the 20th century in the U.S., generations of individuals had a singular model for organization, drawn from a seminal structure of their time: the military. From the World War drafts through Vietnam, the military often elicited widespread participation from a significant majority of American men and women. The scope and power of the military machine during those decades and its omnipresence in the lives of those who served and their families made it a natural model for future enterprises. From enlisted soldiers to high-ranking generals, those who cut their teeth in a militaristic system inevitably saw that experience influence the positions, careers, and companies they engaged once discharged.

Some of the defining characteristics of military organization:

Top-down, Authoritative Governance and Dictation

Hierarchy and Seniority

Strict Division of Labor

Separation of Work and Community

Many of our grandparents did not go to college; many more served or were otherwise directly influenced by the above tenets early in their lives. The result - an explosive growth in organizing principles and resulting companies that resembled these tenets: mass industrialization, the working factory with roles defined to the assembled part on a conveyor belt; punching in and punching out; the explosive scale of four tremendous sectors: U.S. Steel, U.S. Auto, and U.S. Advertising, Wall Street. All of these industries, working complexes, and new economies owe at least a hat tip to the military as a blueprint for design and execution.

Today, many younger people in the US have shared the experience of a more recent entity, with a ubiquity akin to that of grandparents’ experience of the military. That entity is the University.  Many more people attend college then enter any arm of the military outright and so the seminal experience of early adulthood shifts dramatically. 

The defining characteristics of University:

Trust and Open Collaboration

Community Encouragement and Building

Flat Organization where Peers are Equals

Free Sharing of Knowledge To Benefit both the Individual and the Group

In the last half-decade, software development and a proliferation of wireless internet access has facilitated an unbundling of the traditional, four-year college. MOOCs are available to anyone, anywhere. Coursera lets me take full semester-long classes from my couch. Codecademy has solved a problem that most schools with decades of a head start still can’t fix. With college tuition at an exorbitant cost that looks like it will keep rising, the Internet and its brilliant denizens have begun to accomplish a truly profound feat in democratizing and distributing education. 

Yet, if certain characteristics of the entrepreneur’s effective platform for building are those of the University, we can point to that four-year experience as a new model for organization. We’ve seen startups, new networks, and economies built for and around a blueprint of trust, sharing, peer-to-peer equality and coordination. While cities have begun embracing the networks that brought these qualities out of them - UberSideCarHandyDogVacayAirBnBKitchenSurfing - campuses have always been ecosystems where those qualities are encouraged. 

Regardless of whether there is a drop in college application and matriculation eventually, maybe this is a moment in time when several generations’ attraction to the University’s socially open and collaborative structure ends up being a most lasting effect of attending. 

* Massive thanks to my dad for putting these ideas in my head. 

Tim DevaneComment