Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

The perils of top-down versus bottom-up

Posted in business and convergent technologies, social networking and business by Timothy Platt on January 20, 2010

In a fundamental sense the key word in the title of this posting, The Perils of Top-Down Versus Bottom-Up is that word towards the middle: Versus. I want to address some of the issues and assumptions in top-down and bottom-up strategy and execution, but if I am to do this in a way that allows for anything in the way of connecting these approaches within a larger framework, that dividing word has to be addressed too.

Online social networking is often and generally correctly viewed as a bottom-up and grass roots initiative, involving and engaging large numbers of individuals into what emerges as a collective effort. At the same time, really effective networking from the individual’s perspective starts with developing a personal network and that as a matter of process and strategy often includes linking to key people who can add real synergy to your network. I wrote a bit about these people as I analyzed something of the structure of a social network in Social Network Taxonomy and Social Networking Strategy. Hub networkers, demographic connectors or connectors, and boundaryless networkers, also referred to sometimes as promiscuous networks all play important roles here. And to pick up on the most often disparaged of these networker types, the promiscuous networker – these are the people who can help you find and connect with that person out there who is way outside of your usual networking circle but who has very specific skills, experience, geographic local, interests or whatever combination thereof that you need to network with now. If you look at a network from the perspective of these enablers – all three types, a social network also looks to be a bit top-down oriented, in this case from a loosely defined subgroup of members of the community who happen to share in their networking strategy a drive to create synergy.

So the word versus in the title of this posting looks quite reasonable and straightforward as top-down and bottom-up at least initially look to be fairly antithetical to each other – think direct democratic cooperative versus strict top-down organizational hierarchy as extremes. But in practice, social networking, and also business organization behave at least somewhat between these two models as extreme points on a spectrum.

• A need to coordinate to reach overall goals requiring cooperative effort places pressures on a network or organization to shift towards a top-down model.
• The distribution of skills and experience that is found in these groups and organizations across its individual members, and the presence of the distinct and sometimes critically important resources they can individually bring to the effort in turn creates pressures towards a more bottom-up organization with corresponding processes and strategies.
• Routine and readily operationalized goals and processes to reach them can often be managed through a more bottom-up approach.
• Uncertainty coupled with a need for rapid, organized response as occurs in a crisis or emergency often calls for a more centrally coordinated response. In this sense an emergency response or at least a first time emergency and the response to it is more of a one-off and ad hoc event and a project.
• When such an event happens, the group confronting it should at least seek to learn from the experience to be better prepared for any next emergency or crisis, and this means developing best practices and finding ways to streamline and operationalize.
• That does not mean dispensing with coordination as among other things, the plan A developed from earlier experience may have to quickly give way to a plan B or even a plan C as new events unfold. But the more effectively an event can be turned into workable best practices, the more bottom-up enabling they will be for members of the group to take independent action.

I write this with my thoughts turning to a fairly abstract level of discourse and I want to step back to that with what follows, with an old and familiar model: that of Hegelian logic as depicted in its tripartite dialectic.

• One side presents a thesis or point of argument and discussion.
• Another provides an alternative as an antithesis.
• They are reconciled and often as being connected at a deeper level than originally considered with a synthesis.

This model, originally formulated in this specific form by Heinrich Moritz Chalybäus has been supplanted for many purposes by a wide variety of subsequent logical models but the basic process behind it has bearing here for this discussion. And I would turn back to the issues of top-down versus bottom-up with this in mind, and by positing a basic requirement for any effective synthesis between them (with three consequential points added for clarification).

• If you want to reconcile top-down versus bottom-up approaches and find that happy functional medium between them do not focus on the end results and conclusions. Start with a clear depiction and understanding of the perspectives and assumptions that individually lead to them as seemingly opposed and mutually exclusive alternatives.
• People who would more automatically start out looking to organize and coordinate need to start out by looking to and understanding the perspective – the starting point for those who would seek more bottom up, independent action.
• Those who would start from that perspective and with that approach should shift perspective to understand the starting point and the basic assumptions and reasoning of the coordinators and organizers.
• That is where the synthesis bridging their differences will be found and that is where any buy-in and acceptance of this middle ground will be found too.

This is all very dry and abstract, and the real work is in framing it in a workable, practical context and as a compelling call to action. The best motivator for this that comes to my mind is the shared vision and mission of the people who are trying to network and work together, and the set of points of commonality of goals and interests that would bring them to be a community at all. And in times of crisis, the compelling points of shared interest in addressing pressing and immediate needs – this is most likely to happen, just as this type of organizing synthesis is most needed in times of immediate and pressing shared understanding of need.

When all is well, social networking and much more tend to shift to a much more bottom-up in practice and for a reason. In times of uncertainty and change, and in times of need for coordinated, organized response to address shared immediate causes of concern this can shift to a more top-down. There is room for dynamic balance here and even a form of social organizational homeostasis.

• This is driven both by the support of current and ongoing members of the group, as balanced by their resistance to support what they see as too much change, where a balance is reached.
• This is also driven by the dynamism of people joining, staying active in, becoming inactive in and leaving the group with shifts up and down in levels of active involvement while in.

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