“They say I should’ve been here/back about ten years/before it got ruined by folks like me.” – James McMurtry, “I’m Not From Here”, Lost in the Wasteland
Month: January 1997
How not to keep the Internet from collapsing (first appeared in InfoWorld)
If you blow enough smoke, you’ll convince a lot of people there’s a fire somewhere.
Last year, Bob Metcalfe and other pundits predicted the imminent collapse of the Internet. I, on the other hand, courageously predicted its non-collapse, and even more courageously endorsed the free-market economic model on which it is based.
The collapse contingent cites big outages last year, especially at Netcom and AOL, as evidence of the coming collapse. Their recommendation: throw a big party for the Internet’s inventors, thank them, shake their hands, and send them home so professionals can take over the job, replacing the current “anarchy” with modern central administration.
Here’s where I get lost. Netcom and AOL are private corporations operating centrally planned and administered networks. Both suffered big, noisy, noticeable outages. So to save the Internet from collapse, we want to centrally plan and administer it?
What am I missing? Most Americans think communism collapsed because big, centrally planned and managed economies don’t work. Most Americans are right. The Internet’s stability comes from its decentralized model. Rules are established centrally and kept simple – hence “Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) and “Simple Mail Transport Protocol” (SMTP) – while implementation of the rules is decentralized.
(One other problem with the proposed solution: there are no other professionals to call in. Only the Internet’s designers and implementers have experience in designing, building and running a successful, global network that links millions of independent computers. Who else are you gonna call?)
Despite all this enjoyable gloating, I give Dr. Metcalfe a lot of credit for sticking his neck way out, and for making a self-preventing prophesy. When disaster fails to strike, very few people give credit to those who sounded the alarm. I wonder how much of last year’s investment in Internet capacity resulted from the publicity attending Bob’s predictions.
Any lessons for you in all this? Ya, you betcha, as we say in Minnesota. The Internet’s successful use of centralized rule-making and decentralized implementation, far from being anarchic, gives you a wonderful model for organizational design.
Awhile back one of my readers sent me Sahakian’s Rules (Corporate Partnering Institute, Skokie, IL, 1995). It’s worth buying. One entry: “In ancient times, in order to manage large masses of people in the battlefield, Commanders used gongs, banners and horns. If a plan of battle was not simple enough to communicate with gongs, banners, or horns, it was a bad battle plan.”
Manage your organization like the Internet, or like a Commander on an ancient battlefield: with simple, easily communicated rules, not close, central supervision.
One other useful lesson: when you manage, ignore currently fashionable theories, especially those that demonize some group that Isn’t You. The idea that current Internet management doesn’t hack it anymore comes from one such notion that I call the BIG/GAS theory (for “Business Is Great/Government and Academics are Stupid”).
Yes, you can certainly find waste in government. Some comes from its sheer size, more comes from having lawyers (most of Congress) designing work processes, and much of the rest is unavoidable. (The military, for example, is staffed to conduct wars. When there’s no war, it’s over-staffed. Big deal.)
While government isn’t as good as it could be, the Internet’s history proves that BIG/GAS is just … vapor. In the 1960s visionaries in the academic and defense community created it. It’s been an international reality for decades.
In the 1980s the Graphic Communications Association (where, coincidentally, I worked for a few years) began creating the Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML). Commercial publishers ignored it; the defense community embraced it as part of its Computer Aided Logistics System (CALS). Early in this decade, Tim Berners-Lee, working at CERN (the international particle physics laboratory) adapted SGML to invented the HyperText Markup Language (HTML).
And business finally caught on three years ago. BIG/GAS indeed.