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The power of leaderless organisations

The power of leaderless organisations

What do Napster, Wikipedia, Al–Qaeda, e–Bay, the Apache Indians, Skype, Craigslist, Alcoholics Anonymous, Trip Advisor, YouTube, MySpace and Bebo have in common?  If the leader was to be removed from any of these organisations absolutely nothing would change.  Nothing.  Because their huge global power has got nothing to do with their leadership and everything to do with their community.  The web has facilitated the growth of leaderless organisations at an unprecedented rate in history.

The web has rocketed the growth of Blue Linckia starfish businesses.  If you cut a leg off a Blue Linckia starfish, do you know what happens?  It grows a new leg.  What happens if you cut its five legs off?  Not only does the starfish grow five new legs, each of those amputated legs grows into a new starfish.  This amazing biological feat is managed because the intelligence which is the genetic makeup of the Blue Linckia is distributed throughout the starfish.

So why is this relevant to the web?

Consider Napster.  In February 2000 the combined might of MGM, Columbia, Disney, Warner Brothers, Atlantic Records, Capitol Records, RCA, Sony and Virgin Records final got their man.  The courts ruled against Napster and eventually in 2003 Napster went bust.

But the power of Napster didn’t lie with Shawn Fanning who wrote the software.  Its power lay in the community of peer to peer internet file–swappers, who immediately reincarnated.  Following Napster was Kazaa, and when Kazaa was chased Kazaa light was launched.  Then came eMule, eDonkey, Limewire, Bittorrent and others.  The community has become so untouchable that the latest file–sharing programs are entirely open source, so anyone with programming knowledge can download and build their own program.  Many of the popular programs have been anonymously authored, so there is no one even to chase.

There is one principle on which leaderless web businesses thrive.  It is the simple assertion that all of us are more intelligent than one of us.  The web allows us to harness collective intelligence in a way that was simply unthinkable before.

Although not the only factor, Wikipedia has effectively killed Encyclopaedia Britannica.  The Wikipedia community recognises that the combined intelligence of all its authors is much greater even than the brilliant minds who authored Encyclopaedia Britannica.  Wikipedia is a more trusted source now than many official corporate or personal websites, and Google will frequently list Wikipedia entries as the number one listing for subjects as disparate as world leaders, pop groups, sports stars and some of the world’s largest businesses.  Why?  Because Wikipedia recognises that the independent voice of the people is often much more accurate and relevant than the voice of the spin doctors trying to control the corporate message.

Craigslist is taking huge revenues away from paper classifieds who enjoyed a cosy monopoly for years.  Bebo and MySpace are dominating social interaction amongst teens and twenties, to the detriment of personal columns, speed dating organisations and matchmakers.  Skype is cannibalising revenues from the telephone industry, as the community of Skype users talk, instant message and transfer files free of charge across the world.

The message is that large corporate organisations are no longer in control of the message.  The wisdom of the crowd has a voice, a collective which can no longer be overlooked.  Corporate organisations ignore the voice of the crowd at their peril.  The best organisations are harnessing the power of the crowd to help with innovation, new product development and to make wise decisions about the future.

Ingrid Michaelson had her music played on Grey’s Anatomy because she dominated the download charts on MySpace.  Cadbury’s brought back the humble Wispa because of pressure from an online community.  DELL had to radically improve their customer service for faults after a community of bloggers attracted thousands of comments.  The most watched advert in the world in April and May of 2007 had a media spend of zero because of YouTube.

The challenge of the leaderless organisations is a difficult one for many organisations to swallow.  Their demand is that organisations don’t just use the web to publish, but that they use it to listen.

By Gareth Dunlop

Gareth formed Fathom in 2011 and has been in the business of design performance for over two decades.

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