Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Institutional Adventures: Introduction

Institutions make big things possible, for better or worse. I believe that we need institutions, that a world of seven billion people couldn’t even begin to feed itself without political, economic, and cultural structures. At the same time, these large lumbering bodies require careful stewardship and scrutiny to reduce the odds that they’ll sicken and fall on the very societies that they serve.

Don’t think of such institutions as giants romping through a world of human-sized Lilliputians. Not even the most rigid dictatorship is run by one brain; vibrant democracies and firms often depend on leadership, creativity, and empathy at all levels of the organization to function well. Since no individual lacks blemishes, it’s hardly fair to expect perfection from the networks of hierarchy, competing interests, and complicated objectives that undergird most pillars of society.

It’s popular to denounce and criticize large institutions--big government, multi-national corporations, mass media--and with good reason. Large organizations are often the most remote, least nimble players who exert the biggest impact on the lives of others. Nonetheless, they exist for good reasons, and attention is better focused on their reform than their disolution.

It may be possible for one rugged individualist to swear off the modern system, but his world too would come crashing down if seven billion people joined him in exile. As long as we live together, we must do so within and around institutions, some of which must be large enough to ensure the interests or enable the ease of the whole.

The size of that whole and the institutions it supports depend on technology and diplomacy. Several thousand years ago, social scope didn’t extend much farther than a tribe and its immediate horizon. Gradually, language, religion, science, transportation networks, and codes of conduct brought us into the ages of fiefdoms, and then kingdoms and empires. Further developments in culture, technology, and power eventually enabled the imperfectly globalized world of 2011.

This age could not be run with 18th century institutions any more than it could function with horses, water wheels, and sailing ships. That leaves the hard part: how to create and maintain institutions that optimally serve society. This requires a balance of public and private interests, under a guiding governmental framework that itself must be carefully shepherded and continually refined.

Regardless of size, effective institutions must try to understand and serve their mandate, be it to shareholders, patrons, or voters. Organizations must recognize and target the incentives both of the whole and of each component towards achieving--or at least not undercutting--their mission. Ultimate success and sustainability also requires transparency, fairness, and openness to critical analysis both within and beyond the enterprise.

Over the next several posts in this series I will look at cases of institutional success and collateral damage in the military, the private sector, and democratic enterprises. This series will flow from the fallout of ill-defined victory and unhelpful metrics in Vietnam, to the cases for and against major corporations, and look at the imperfect compromises between debate and decision that frame governments big and small.

No comments:

Post a Comment