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Spiders, Starfish and Institutions of Learning

September 17th, 2008 jonmott Comments

I just finished reading The Starfish and the Spider. The authors argue that a growing number of organizations are more like starfish than they are like spiders. Spiders are “centralized” in that they have a head that governs the rest of the body. If you cut off the head, the spider dies. In contrast, starfish do not have a central nervous system. They have no head, no brain. If you cut off a tentacle from a starfish, the starfish will probably grow a new one. In some species, the tentacle might even grow a whole new starfish. 

Exactly how a starfish survives, e.g. how it decides to move from point A to point B, is something of a biological mystery. Without a brain to coordinate the movement of its tentacles, a starfish could just flop around on the ocean floor. But somehow it moves. The legs somehow negotiate with each other to move in the direction that  is best for the organism, say in the direction of something to eat.

Starfish organizations are similar in nature. With little or no centralized coordination, they still manage to pursue and achieve a common (or widely shared) goal.

The authors suggest that starfish organizations have the following characteristics (p. 46-53):

  • There’s no one person “in charge”
  • There’s no recognizable headquarters
  • If you “thump it on the head” it survives
  • There’s an amorphous division of roles
  • If you “take out a unit” the community survives
  • Knowledge and power are distributed
  • The organization is flexible
  • Units are self-funding
  • It’s difficult (or impossible) to count “members” or participants
  • Working groups communicate directly with each other (instead of through a central organization)

Alcoholics Anonymous, the music-swapping community, al Qaeda, and craigslist are examples of communities that are more like starfish than they are like spiders. 

Traditional institutions of learning (colleges and universities) are much more like spiders than they are starfish. In contrast to the starfish organizations described in the book, Universities have clearly identifiable leaders (presidents), a headquarters, and are dependent upon the “central administration” to survive. Additionally, there’s a clear division of roles, the organization tends to be more rigid than flexible (think colleges & departments), units get the bulk of their funding from the central organization, and you can count the participants (student FTEs). In some ways, however, Universities can be like starfish–you can (in most cases) take out a unit without severely harming the organization, knowledge and power is distributed, and working groups frequently communicate directly with each other (without coordination from the administration).

In the end, the authors suggest that the most successful, dynamic and vibrant organizations are likely to be hybrids, i.e. part starfish-part spider (sounds like a bad SciFi Channel movie, doesn’t it?). Open Content and Open Educational Resources, and Open CourseWare all have the potential to make institutions of higher education more like starfish. These movements tend to promote broader participation in and ownership of curriculum. There is no “president” of the OER movement. Instead there are “thought leaders.” Instead of a headquarters, some working groups recognized by the community as centers of excellence and best practices. There is an amorphous division of roles. It’s difficult to count the participants. And so on.

But how do we reconcile the fundamentally starfish-like traits of the OER community with the traditional hierarchies of colleges and universities? The ideal hybrid organization is centralized where centralization adds the most value to its members and decentralized where decentralization is best. For example, eBay is centralized when it comes to verifying the identity of buyers and sellers and the security of financial transactions. But it is highly decentralized when it comes to what is bought and sold and at what price in the auctions it hosts. These decisions are made almost exclusively by the members of the eBay community.

As institutions of higher education evolve, they might similarly remain centralized in cases where centralization adds value to students–paying instructors, providing physical learning spaces, certifying student performance, granting credentials and degrees. Accordingly, institutions might become increasingly decentralized when it comes to the creation and delivery of learning materials, the bundling of various learning activities, the provision of teaching and learning tools, etc.

Many faculty and students are already moving in this direction in their teaching and learning activities. Are college and university administrators paying attention?