Sunday, February 6, 2011

To Share, Perchance to Merge

From the halls of governments addressing shrinking revenues, to the sanctuaries of religious organizations coping with declining congregations, sharing resources and merging organizations is on the agenda.

A colleague from New York’s Oswego County used to joke that the contiguous villages of Sandy Creek and Lacona had not merged because “We could never agree on which volunteer fire company would be named Fire Company Number 1.” While affectionately trivializing the reasons for maintaining the independence of these two small villages this quip reveals an underlying truth: we are often separated by our shared identity.

The more similar we are, the more we strive to distinguish ourselves. Small differences can be magnified and even divide us. Think sibling rivalry; family feud.

Differentiation enables organizations to diversify, specialize, pursue focused aims, develop tailored approaches, and be held intimately accountable by their membership or constituency.

Maintaining multiple organizations with similar or overlapping functions, even though each serves a legitimate special purpose, can be costly. In earlier times, when the costs of transportation and communication were high, geographic distance itself justified multiple organizations or service centers. This is the likely reason why Oswego County has two county seats. Given this area’s history of impassible snowfalls, the 45 mile trip from Redfield to the City of Oswego would be a burden to anyone conducting official county business or making a court appearance, justifying a second county seat in the Village of Pulaski.*

However, geography no longer separates us as it used to. Transportation (by modern highways, roads, and vehicles) and communication (by cell phone, email, instant messaging, websites, and video) link us together in ways that have outstripped our physical and organizational arrangements. Rather than maintaining separate resources – physical, human, and information – for each existing organization, it’s time to reconsider these arrangements in light of modern technology. President Obama recognized this in his State of the Union message when he noted, “the last major reorganization of the government happened in the age of black and white TV.” It’s time to consider arrangements that in the past were not economical or simply not possible.

Perhaps most important is to consider the impact of information technology. It has largely replaced paper-based communication and recordkeeping, and has reduced our need to travel given the availability of audio and video communication, pod casts and web conferences. No longer is travel necessary to work or conduct business with someone.

From a consumer perspective, the receipt of many products and services no longer requires the intervention of an intermediary: we are accustomed to self-service. That goes for supermarkets (what customer today, except in an old movie, hands a list of needed goods to a store clerk who then fetches them from behind the counter), gasoline stations (except in New Jersey, where self-service gasoline stations are prohibited), and many government services: from getting a dog license (using a web-based application) to filing federal income taxes (in 2010, nearly 70 percent of the taxpayers, 100 million people, filed with the IRS electronically). Information technology even lets us choose how we obtain those products and services. We have customized self-service.

Deciding if and how we can share resources or merge requires first a willingness to collaborate and suspension of the assumption that it won’t work. Next, it requires information about those organizations and their resources and operations. Again, information shows its central role in how we organize. Information and information technology enable us to manage and use our other resources more effectively, and with greater economy of scale.

* P.S. Don’t think I’m picking on Oswego County. Perhaps the villages of Sandy Creek and Lacona should merge. However, years ago they jointly built a single school building that straddles their shared border. They know how to share resources, and perhaps they can take advantage of new technologies to do that more extensively. And perhaps one of the county seats should be closed, but for a county with a history of heavy snowfalls (for example, in early February 2007, this area received over ten feet of snow) perhaps Oswego’s two county seats are warranted. Ultimately, this is a local decision, but the assumptions of the past should be set aside and replaced by the potential application of current technology, a fresh analysis of the economy of scale, and willingness to seek collaborative advantage.

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