By David Ronfeldt
Over the past few years, I've become really interested in ways that organizations are structured and collaborate, particularly organizations that take advantage of digital technologies to coordinate their work. That led me, among other places, to examine "netwar," or the application of networks to military conflicts. One of the most interesting collections on netwar, reviewed here a while back, is a collection edited by John Arquila and David Ronfeldt; it has really helped me in thinking about how networks form and self-organize. So when Ronfeldt gave me a heads-up on his recent RAND working paper on tribes, I read it almost immediately.
This working paper elaborates the first of four organizational forms: tribes, hierarchical institutions, and networks (p.iii). Ronfeldt argues that these four forms represent four stages in social evolution, with each stage existing along the previous. So societies eventually progress from the tribal (T) to institutional (I) to market (M) to network (N), and since each form incorporates the previous form, Ronfeldt represents each with its initial and those of the previous stages: T, T+I, T+I+M, T+I+M+N. Eventually, Ronfeldt's goal is to write a book that elaborates on all four forms; this working paper constitutes the first part of that book.
When we talk about evolution and progression of universal organizational forms, especially forms such as networks that societies have yet to evolve into, I tend to worry about teleology: the strong controlling narrative that convinces us that we know what's going to happen. Claims such as "Four forms of organization -- and evidently only four -- lie behind the governance and evolution of all societies across the ages" (p.1) seem hubristic. Absolutism and teleology are certainly dangers in this working paper, but I can't get too worked up about them in this case: Ronfeldt is trying to set up a taxonomy that can guide our thinking about how organizations have been observed to work, not set up universal rules, and he also acknowledges that other forms of organization will probably continue to emerge. He also says that "success is not inevitable" when societies attempt to make the transition to a new stage (p.4).
These four forms have been present since ancient times, he says, but have developed at different rates and gained under different conditions:
"Each form," he says,
- The tribal form was the first to emerge and mature, beginning thousands of years ago. Its main dynamic is kinship, which gives people a distinct sense of identity and belonging—the basic elements of culture, as manifested still today in matters ranging from nationalism to fan clubs.
- The institutional form was the second to emerge. Emphasizing hierarchy, it led to the development of the state and the military, as epitomized initially by the Roman Empire, not to mention the Catholic papacy and other corporate enterprises.
- The market form, the third form of organization to take hold, enables people to excel at openly competitive, free, and fair economic exchanges. Although present in ancient times, it did not gain sway until the 19th century, at first mainly in England.
- The network form, the fourth to mature, serves to connect dispersed groups and individuals so that they may coordinate and act conjointly. Enabled by the digital information-technology revolution, this form is only now coming into its own, so far strengthening civil society more than other realms. (p.1)
requires a different set of conditions before it can take hold, including a revolution in the information and communications technologies of the time. Yet, the progression occurs mainly because the attractiveness of each form lies in its capacity to enable people to address a core problem that a society is bound to face as it develops. In brief, the tribal form excelled—and continues to excel today—at addressing the early problem of social identity and belonging; the hierarchical institutional form, the problem of power and administration; and the market form, the problem of complex exchanges. The paradigmatic strength of the collaborative network form is still unclear; however, it seems best suited to addressing the still-far-from-resolved problem of social equity. (p.2)These organizational changes, he says, coincide with new values and norms (p.2), new limits (p.3), and modifications to the previous organizational forms (p.3). "If the addition of a new form occurs properly, the older forms end up being strengthened, not weakened, even as their scope is newly limited" (p.3). And "They are not substitutes for one another; they are complements" (p.3). So, he warns, "To do well in the 21st century and beyond, an advanced, democratic, information-age society must incorporate all four forms and make them function well together, despite their inherent contradictions" (p.3).
That transition is hardly predestined. In fact, "many so-called failed states are really failed tribes," while other countries, "failing to make the +M transition ... have reverted to hard-line T+I regimes" (p.5). The US, Western European, and Scandinavian countries, are on their way to creating quadriform (T+I+M+N) societies; "this evolutionary shift explains some of the turbulence America has been experiencing at home and abroad," he adds without elaboration (p.5).
The network shift is what really intrigues me right now, so let's cut to the section on network forms of organization. Ronfeldt argues that
the information revolution strengthens and favors network forms of organization. The new information and communications technologies—all that make up the Net, the Web, the Grid—are enabling dispersed, often small, once-isolated groups and individuals to connect, coordinate, and act conjointly as never before. Power and influence are migrating to actors who are skilled at developing multiorganizational networks and operating in contexts in which such networks are common, as evidenced by the rise of transnational networks of environmental, human-rights, and other NGOs that represent civil society—not to mention terrorist and criminal organizations that represent uncivil society. It is also evident among businesses that form strategic partnerships, and among interagency mechanisms that operate at many levels of government. All are pursuing network designs, although nonstate actors remain generally ahead of state actors at adopting them. These trends, projected into the future, seem to augur major transformations in how the world’s advanced societies will be organized—or, if not societies as a whole, then at least key sectors of their governments, economies, and civil societies. (pp.9-10)So how do we identify networks and other organizational forms? Ronfeldt argues that topology must be the first criterion, but others include "different kinds of bonds, transactions, decision rules, and coordination mechanisms"; are associated with "different philosophical ideals, codes of conduct, and mentalities"; and "each requires an actor to have different kinds of information to perform well in that particular form" (p.16, emphasis mine). (He provides a lengthy comparative table on pp.19-20.)
The most questioned distinction, he says, is between tribes and networks. Many claim that "tribes are kinship networks" and "in this view, ancient tribes and information-age networks are all networks (or all tribes)" (p.22). However, he argues, the essential dynamics are different: tribes cluster people according to kinship principles, in order not to solve complex tasks but to affirm "identity and belonging for purposes of survival and solidarity" (p.22). This is true, he says, not just in blood ties but in nationalism and fan clubs. In information-age networks, on the other hand, "people who are far removed from each other can connect, coordinate, and act conjointly across barriers and distances" -- and although membership can also serve tribal identity, that's not the point: "this form is suited to enabling people to address modern, complex policy issues that may require efforts from many directions at the same time" (p.22). Think in terms of open-source software development or the complex problems that Barbara Mirel describes in her recent book. In networks, what matters is not bloodline but ideas; members have "fluid, multiple identities"; and networks themselves have "blurred, indefinite boundaries" (pp.22-23). And in this vein, think in terms of postmodernism and boundary-crossing work.
But let's get back to the form of tribes, which is the main focus of the working paper. Ronfeldt describes tribes as
kinship is both ideology and strategy. A tribe’s internal cohesion and its relations with other tribes revolve around a realpolitik not of physical resources but of lineages and marriages ... Arranged marriage is a key instrument for deliberately structuring society. (p.33)Organizationally, "tribes are resolutely egalitarian, segmental, and acephalous" (p.35) --- that is, they favor individual autonomy, they are not very specialized, and they do not have strong hierarchical leadership. Such characteristics mean that tribes address problems of social identity well; but they handle power and administration poorly and thus do not support complex activity, since they do not have adequate measures for "leadership, decisionmaking, planning, and coordination" (p.43). When tribes begin to develop these characteristics, such as by establishing stable chieftains, they are on their way to transitioning into a T+I form.
Ronfeldt also discusses the "light" and "dark" sides of tribes (and other forms). Just one example: Monotheistic religions have tribal roots (p.42), and "all ancient religious hatreds by groups toward groups ... are sure to speak the language of tribe and clan" (p.42). Those hatreds are with us still; as Ronfeldt notes, in TIMN societies, "tribalism gets concentrated in what becomes the home realm" and indeed "the tribal form is essential to culture, because cultures express the kinship of not only people but also ideas and practices" (p.53). Tribalism is always part of the organizational form, even in more complex structures, and becomes stronger if such a structure collapses:
As a society degenerates and is stripped of the later TIMN forms—the more its state, market, and civil-society systems falter and fall apart—people are sure to revert to the tribal form. It again becomes the driving form. Aspiring leaders may even hype sectarianism or nationalism precisely to put listeners in a tribal frame of mind—inciting their sense of identity, focusing their grievances on outsiders, and energizing them for new sacrifices and struggles. Polarization and tribalism then become of a piece—as polarization tribalizes, so does tribalism further polarize. (pp.62-63)This link between tribalism and demagoguery isn't explored further, but is still thought-provoking.
Ronfeldt leaves us with these thoughts about the implications of tribe for US policy and strategy abroad:
This working paper was fascinating from top to bottom, and I'm looking forward to Ronfeldt turning it into a book. I'm still processing the implications and testing the assumptions that Ronfeldt describes here, and I do have some reservations about the universal and sometimes teleological nature of some of his claims. But he lays out a taxonomy of organizational structures with criteria and characteristics that I will find valuable for thinking through knowledge work and its implications. Others who study work, work organization, and information technologies could also benefit from this clear and engaging discussion.
- that great powers, as they expand afar, are often ultimately undone by tribal encounters
- that today’s world is experiencing a tumult of tribalisms, more than a clash of civilizations
- that Islam, a civilizing force, has fallen under the sway of Islamists who are a tribalizing force
- that fascism, which fuses hyper-tribalism and hyper-hierarchy, is due for a resurgence. (p.68)