We often overlook an interesting contrast between the workplace and our private lives. In the workplace, we have an organizational structure in which people have fixed authority, are grouped together in units, and have specified processes for regular operations and for how to handle many exceptions. In our daily life, we have none of these (unless we are the von Trapp family), but we still get things done. To the curious mind, this begs the question of what organizations are for, apart from controlling people who cannot be trusted on their own.
Felipe G.Massa and Siobhan O’Mahony have published research in Administrative Science Quarterly that gives a nice answer to that question. They examined the self-organized Anonymous movement, which started off radically different from normal organizations in structure (they had none), processes (they improvised them), and ethos (freedom of information and action is paramount). Anonymous earned a reputation as an unpredictable group of activists that could suddenly descend on targets through protests and hacker attacks, seemingly organized through little else than internet forum conversations.
The only problem with this reputation is that it is only true of early stages of the Anonymous movement. They did indeed organize through shared forums and used shared norms and jargon to define boundaries and direct action. But Anonymous attracted so many newcomers that these mechanisms were no longer enough to maintain the identity of the movement and the cohesion of their actions, resulting in chaos. Reacting to this, senior members of the movement sought to use norms both for integrating new participants and for directing the protest actions they had become famous for, which were becoming less systematic and predictable.
Norms work well, right? After all, the Catholic church has applied strong norms and has been in operations for a couple thousand years. But churches are organizations too, and they use structure and processes just like any other organization. And the time came when Anonymous started looking more and more like an organization.
Anonymous now has well-defined roles, with different levels of experience and expertise determining what role a member fills. Anonymous has a hierarchy, with decisions made centrally and communicated outwards to the peripheral members. Anonymous has training of new members, manuals for how to act, and tests that allow promotion into higher ranks. In short, Anonymous is an organization.
Is this controversial or surprising? My first guess is that the most surprised people share one of two very different beliefs. One is the belief of economists that coordination of many is a simple matter of aligning preferences through some simple device, such as a price. This belief is correct, but it turns out that prices and mass-market goods are one of the few contexts in which it holds. The other is the belief of ideologists that mass movements can be coordinated by shared beliefs and norms. That is also correct, but only for short periods of time, as Anonymous found.
My second guess is that organizational theorists are the least surprised. We should not be surprised because what we have learned time and time again is that organizations are unbeatable for coordinating the actions of many, whether they be friends, strangers, or in between. Just ask Anonymous, if you can find the right person to ask.
Massa, F. G., & O’Mahony, S. (2021). Order from Chaos: How Networked Activists Self-Organize by Creating a Participation Architecture. Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming. doi: 10.1177/00018392211008880
This blog is devoted to discussions of how events in the news illustrate organizational research and can be explained by organizational theory. It is only updated when I have time to spare.