The starfish and the spider: book review

It is certainly a great book (this is the Amazon link), however, in my opinion, there’s still an important difference between two main kinds of decentralised organisations that should be defined in a more accurate way: structures like Wikipedia have a clear, well defined and global goal (for example, creating a unique and complete world-wide encyclopedia), while almost any P2P network should be considered as a widespread (distributed) structure based on thousands of “local” activities that make a global network emerge as an inner property of the system itself.

Such a reflection could be useful in order to understand the difficulty inherent the attempt to transform a classical, centralized organization into a “starfish” one. Even if the authors mark the enormous difference that exists between a normal CEO and a catalyst, it seems that any kind of decentralized system may represent the target of a network-oriented conversion process, just like the one worked by Peter Drucker inside General Motors.

I think, together with Brafman and Beckstrom, that a centralized organization which aim is to reach a precise goal imposed directly or indirectly by its stakeholders, can be transformed only into a particular kind of starfish that must keep at least the globality of every management purpose. In other words, a starfish without a unique brain, but which cells are sufficiently “skilled” to achieve a common goal rather than a locally self-centred activity target.

This concept can be easily accepted by a centralized company, but it’s still too hard whenever each peer of a network (like eMule or Kazaa) is free to search and offer (often illegally) materials only according to a limited set of personal “whims”. Another subtle difference can be found between organizations like eBay and other decentralized or hybrid structures: in the former, almost any user activity is treated as a part of a complex system that is always defined through an abstract concept.

Even if there’s a high-level central control, its management board can work only with generic “transactions”, or, to be more precise, with with a large and heterogeneous group of them. A great or poor result is thus an emergent property which “components” are almost completely hidden and this condition brings about a general global behaviour much more similar to Wikipedia than GM (post-Drucker) even if eBay has a CEO and a board of directors whose decisions must be respected by every employee.

A starfish is surely a good solution, but when there’s a central brain, maybe it’s quite better to share a common point of view!