Organization: Small Pieces Loosely Joined

What made all these things [the emerging technologies of interactive computing] work so well is that they were empty inside. Almost skeletal. Hard to believe there isn’t more to it. I asked one of my mentors how this could be and he said it has to be that way. If it’s complex it can’t work until it’s empty. These days we have another way to describe this, my friend and former colleague David Weinberger called it Small Pieces, Loosely Joined. I’ve never heard a better description of the architecture of the Internet.
–Dave Winer,
Let’s Build A New Internet In Academia

Can we build a Meta University within universities as well as among them? Any university that wants to be a leader in the digital world must do so. The most effective contributions to this Meta University will come from those institutions that walk the walk within their own structures. That is, the organizational structures that will most effectively invent the future and lead education into a new millennium will be those in which the organizational structures are themselves “accessible, empowering, dynamic,” those that are “communally constructed framework[s] of open materials and platforms.”

We know we need robust infrastructure: high-capacity, high-bandwidth connections, both wired and wireless, and ubiquitous throughout the campus’s physical spaces; flexible, reconfigurable learning environments; support for faculty, staff, and students; easily accessible and navigable digital repositories, and so on. We can identify these needs fairly readily, even if we do not yet know how we will design or support the resources that meet them. Once again, however, the real challenge is cultural. In addition to specific goals like the ones enumerated above, the organizational subcommittee consistently uses words like “flexibility,” “collaboration,” “sharing,” “integrating,” and most challenging of all, “nurture and develop.” These are words that point to attitudes and values. These are cultural words. How can we inculcate such a culture at a large research university with over 3,000 faculty and over 30,000 students, plus staff and administration?

Once again, we should look for a guiding principle to the Internet itself, in particular the World Wide Web. In “Small Pieces Loosely Joined” (, his classic work on the design and organizing function of the Web, David Weinberger writes, “the Web gets its value not from the smoothness of its overall operation but from its abundance of small nuggets that point to more small nuggets.” The challenge for an organization, then, is to identify those nuggets, teams, and services that provide real value and organize them not into a tight structure but into a set of flexible, networked links: small pieces loosely joined.

Large organizations function in almost the opposite way: huge pieces tightly joined, or perhaps even worse, huge pieces completely disconnected from each other. The challenge is one of communication within a structure that empowers each person to create links among the small pieces loosely joined. Again we must ask, where are these conversations possible (answer: everywhere), and how can we foster them? Ironically, task forces and special committees are often the first time people from clearly interdependent areas come together to voice their perspectives and articulate common goals. Here leaders in the Registrar’s Office share their hopes and frustrations with leaders from the College of Architecture and Urban Studies, or with leaders from IDDL or CIDER. Here the conductor of a laptop orchestra brainstorms with an education researcher, the dean of undergraduate studies, and the chief information officer. We must instantiate these conversations more regularly and widely. Such conversations not only generate solutions and ideas, but also identify and begin to link those small pieces loosely joined. Again, leadership is key. A task force clearly signals the priority and urgency the institution has given to the conversation. To stimulate more of these conversations, we will need more such assignments, more such signals from our leadership.

We have already seen how Google sends these signals to its employees. It’s instructive also to recall Apple’s beginnings. When it came time to design the Macintosh, a group physically relocated to another building on the Apple campus and literally flew a pirate’s flag from the rooftop. When the Macintosh was finished, the first ones included reproductions of the signatures from the entire project team inside the case of the machine.

Metaphorically speaking, our approach to organizational structures for 21st– century digital leadership must be one in which talented, committed workers have the chance to be pirates (i.e., innovate dramatically, even radically) as well as the chance to sign their work, even if only they will know the signatures are there. Instead of silos, we must build platforms for invention and reinvention. The “wealth of networks” described by Yochai Benkler can emerge among us if those platforms are fundamentally platforms for conversation, and if that conversation is encouraged to imagine and embrace risk for the sake of renewal and invention.

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