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Egypt, Tunisia, Algiers, Bahrain, Iran, Libya, the UK student protest and Wikileaks what do they all have in common?

Written by on 18 February 2011

A wave of civil unrest appears to be sweeping across many parts of the world. However, is this just a passing fad or is it the beginning of a new social regime?

What’s changed?

In previous social movements, the Egyptian protest for example, would have required an organisational body to organise, co-ordinate and direct social action. This is no longer the case.

In Egypt, a country with a population of over 80 million, just over 1 million people protested against the Presidential regime of Hosni Mubarak. The demonstrators utilised social media to effectively organise demonstrations, organise logistics and communicate to the world, the events, as they were happening.

Egypt ProtestsTechnology provides the platform for new organisational design

Technology has given birth to enhanced capabilities, with huge volumes having access to new networks. These social media channels have become increasingly popular and in recent times, have become the key enabler for social protest. In the UK, the student protests effectively out maneuvered the police by utilising realtime social networks, which broadcast a live Google Map through which students could plot the changing positions of the police.

We continue to see how Twitter is being used to communicate developing information and how Facebook is being used to enable social organisations and provide a greater situational awareness.

Authorities slow to act

The use of social media has provided the framework for fragmented groups to combine social action in order to meet a shared objective. Importantly, this does not mean they share the same end states. The authorities in all cases have been struggling to meet the dynamic challenges that these self-organising networks provide.

The effect of organisational design

The key to the problem lies in the organisational design of the state, all aspects of the state machinery have been organised for maximum efficiency. The ‘M Form’ is the universally accepted design for organisations. It provides an effective structure through which management can co-ordinate resources in order to provide defined capabilities (also known as multi-divisional structures). The asymmetric response that the recent social demonstrations have utilised is an ‘N Form’ methodology, where resources and capabilities are organised around a task. This can be transient in nature and provides a focus for individuals to collaborate social action for different aims. The problem for the authorities is how to meet an ‘N Form’ response with a traditional ‘M Form’ capability.

Danger in the detail of social media!

Social Media BubbleWhilst states and organisational authority grapple with the phenomena of social networks, the critical issue of mid-term volatility remains. As more fragmented groups self organise to produce effective pressure groups, the aftermath of their actions are still to be evaluated. In the past, a single (or dominant organisation) was the driving force for change. It was often this force that then became the primary contributor to the new state that emerged after civil unrest. However, when the social group is comprised of a fragmented group of aims, it is far less certain what will emerge. In Egypt, the departure of President Hosin Mubarak has left a military government in power. Was this the shared desired outcome?

Building the response

SolldierNational authorities are rapidly trying to understand the best way of responding to this new method of organisational design. It is critical that the networks, and how they are used, are thoroughly understood. Nations will need to focus on ‘big ideas’ that resonate across a wide spectrum of society and be prepared to defend individual policies within a comprehensive framework. Authorities must accept that a greater emphasis must be placed on leadership and not control. Technology has provided (and will continue to provide) a basis for asymmetric organisational advantage. States and state authorities will require a greater focus on empowerment, localised response and timely intervention in order to effectively shape an appropriate response.

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